Ragged All Blacks to face revived Springboks in Rugby Champs
For the first time in several years the All Blacks and Springboks will face each other on almost even terms when they meet in the Rugby Championship in Auckland on Saturday.
Both teams are unbeaten midway through the championship and the title, held by New Zealand, will likely be decided by the result of their matches on Saturday and in Cape Town on Oct. 7.
This match finds the teams on opposing trajectories; the Springboks are on the up after a woeful 2016 season while the All Blacks have slipped from the standard they set last year when they won 13 of 14 tests.
The current Springboks bear no resemblance to the team that won only four of 12 tests last season, losing 41-13 and 57-15 to New Zealand in the Rugby Championship.
They are unbeaten in six tests this year and have beaten Argentina twice and drawn with Australia in their three championship matches. Nor are the current All Blacks the equals of the 2016 team which performed at a consistently high standard, despite having to rebuild significantly after winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
While they have won five, lost one and drawn one of their seven tests - drawing their mid-year series with the British and Irish Lions - the All Blacks haven't been able to consistently produce the brilliant attacking style they achieved so effortlessly last year.
Injuries have cramped that style, most notably the loss of key backs Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith during the Lions series. But the All Blacks seem to have been beset by a deeper malaise; the rush defenses now routinely used by their rivals and deployed most effectively by the Lions have been successful in disrupting their back play.
Some of the blame has been placed at the feet of flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who was the best player in his position in the world last year but has struggled at times this season to reproduce that form in the face of suffocating defensive pressure.
Barrett admits his option-taking has suffered because of the close attention of defenses which give him little time to act. He feels confident he can overcome that difficulty.
''I just have to have better situational awareness of who is around me and what the best options are for the occasion,'' Barrett said. ''Understand the difference of having a tight forward outside me or inside versus having an outside back.
''I guess it's also about speed of ball. If we have quick ball or slow ball and whether it is front-foot ball versus whether we are going backwards. These are the main cues.''
The All Blacks have persisted in their attempts to play an all-out attacking game, despite a mounting error rate and the breakdowns that have occurred around Barrett. There have been times when they might have reverted to a more conservative style, at least to have used tactical kicking to relieve pressure, but they have persisted.
Coach Steve Hansen is happy to see his young players under pressure and forced to make snap decisions.
''In 2016 we had a group of men who had been primed to hit the road running,'' he said. ''In 2017, the game has changed subtly so we're learning to deal with that.
''You're always going to have a tough time as a squad at some period. It would appear this is a year we're having to find out about ourselves, how we are preparing, are we doing it bone-deep or are we just scratching the surface?''
The Springboks have comparatively fewer problems, having fully regained confidence that was shattered in 2016. Coach Allister Coetzee has reshaped his team, building again with new players and that has fully paid off, rewarding the South African Rugby Union for sticking with him after the Springboks' worst ever season.
''We've actually buried 2016 as deep as possible and moved on,'' Coetzee said. ''This is a completely different team environment.
''It's different individuals in terms of why they are Springboks and what they represent. The mindset is completely different.''
The result is the teams are again closely matched, and they are likely to add an exciting new chapter to one of rugby's richest rivalries.