The All Blacks will venture warily into the unknown in Cape Town on Saturday, aware of the gruelling expectations and certain pressure about to be exerted by both the world champions Springboks and their own nation in the match that may decide this year’s Tri-Nations Championship.
The combination of the two is a dizzying prospect. The physicality of the South Africans and the enormous demands from home will hit this new look All Blacks side simultaneously at kick off time, at Newlands tomorrow afternoon. Strong men will need to stand up to handle this intimidating challenge.
All Blacks backs coach Wayne Smith spent some time outlining the heavy demands of these occasions, on another warm, sunny Cape Town afternoon. Alas, the delights of this enchanting city for visitors beside the southern ocean will dissipate at kick-off time on Saturday.
Smith was asked about the pressures of trying to build a new-look All Blacks side and keep winning every Test match during that process. Images of Croesus trying gamely to push his stone up a hill came flooding to mind as Smith outlined the philosophy behind the task.
“It is not important what others think” he said. “All that matters is us, and what the players who are here at the moment think. We are trying to do our best for them. They are a hell of a good group and I hope they can become a great group. It’s their job to work at that. Anything else doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t even care about it.
“The other pressures are other people’s pressures, not mine. My pressures are about doing the best I can for these players, being better as a coach, trying to give them great experience. There is nothing better than seeing those guys come off the paddock with smiles on their faces because they have performed well. That is what we are in it for.
“People try to put a lot of expectations on us but we are hard enough on ourselves. We have got our own expectations and pressures. I think that is harder to face.”
But are the pressures too much for this new group of All Blacks? Smith wasn’t accepting that. “For 100 years, young New Zealand players have flourished under these pressures so nothing has changed. Players have traditionally come to the party or they haven’t.
“That is the process: we are finding out who has got it, who is going to be a long term player for the All Blacks and one or two have put up their hands. They are a great group, really approachable and I love coaching them. They are a group that wants to learn and that is what is important to us.”
Smith was asked whether he feared the South Africans had lost their sense of aura of the All Blacks. His reply might have surprised some. “I would be surprised if they were ever in fear of the All Blacks. They are Springboks, they have a great tradition. It’s only over the last 20 years that the balance of the games has tipped in the All Blacks’ favour. So it would surprise me if the Springboks have ever feared us.
“Whether there has been a change I don’t know. But there has been a change in the coaching style and their up-front nature has altered, yes. Whether that is one of the (Springbok coach’s) strategies to try and create an attitude that we are not as good as people think, I am not too sure.”
The All Blacks have studiously refused to get involved in the mind games instigated this week by ‘Boks coach Peter de Villiers. They’re wise to have done so, preferring to focus intently on their own preparations for Saturday. Whilst the South Africans have been out at a couple of big dinners this week, the New Zealanders have prepared quietly and retained their focus. It could pay dividends tomorrow afternoon.
Smith, of course, has been here before; he knows the deal. But he has warned his players the coaching staff can’t do it for them. “There are a lot of doubters around but we don’t doubt the team has got the heart to do it. But it is a big challenge. To take that intensity (of Auckland) off shore and put it on the track at Newlands will take some doing.
“We can’t do it for them. You can talk about what it’s going to be like and try and re-create situations at training but you can’t get into it. But we trust these boys and believe they are going to put it all on the park on Saturday. Whether that’s good enough to win or not we will see.”
In other words, the unknown factor looms. No-one in Cape Town this week has been certain about forecasts. Bets have been hedged, doubts aired. It could go either way depending upon a multiplicity of factors.
Perhaps it will only be at the height of the battle that we will see the true leaders emerge, witness the match deciding feats of key players. At times such as those, the greats tend to stand up and be counted. But which side has more of them? It remains an unknown factor.