It promises to be the top Test match of 2008, the first visit of the New Zealand All Blacks to South Africa since the Springboks became world champions 10 months ago.
Saturday’s Test at Cape Town pits the world champions with their new coach, Peter de Villiers, against New Zealand, led by the wily Graham Henry. Tactically, technically and in terms of bruising physicality, it is likely to be a highly demanding contest for both teams.
Brian Ashton analysed teams constantly during his 15 month tenure as England coach. His assessment of this weekend’s Test reveals where some of the key battles could be fought and won.
“I don’t think what they did to Argentina last weekend (63-9) will have any bearing whatsoever to this match. But as reigning world champions they will be keen to show their supporters they are still up there at the top of the world. I think they’re going to have to re-produce that sort of form this Saturday.
But their kicking game will be strengthened by Fourie du Preez’s recall, and I applaud that decision. He will be really important because he is such an intelligent rugby player. Also, their line-out has proved pretty good over the last 3-4 seasons. You always need a platform up front, irrespective of what sort of laws you are playing under.
The way this New Zealand side bounced back from their defeat against Australia was terrific. That performance really impressed me. I half expected it, but it’s actually putting it into operation.
At the breakdown and in their kicking game, they were very clinical. That took some doing in a 7-day turnaround because those were the two areas where they hadn’t been very good in Sydney. However, it’s not easy to go out and just hit that level of performance again. However, if they don’t do that, they could find themselves in trouble against South Africa.
Although they did exceptionally well in the line-outs against Australia in Auckland, they struggled in the 1st Test against the Wallabies and they struggled against England, too, in that phase. But they worked out a way to play against Australia in areas where they felt they’d failed a week before so you don’t know.
KEY MEN - NEW ZEALAND
The obvious names that spring out are Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter and Ma’a Nonu. Nonu is a very interesting player, not the traditional NZ second five eight. They normally put a footballing player there. Nonu doesn’t appear to have a kicking game but he doesn’t half make up for it in other areas in terms of his running, his ability to knock opponents off and keep the ball alive. And his presence is forcing them to play in a far more direct way which I think suits the pack of players that they have got.
Of the others, Jimmy Cowan’s kicking against Australia was very intelligent indeed, not traditional at all.
KEY MEN - SOUTH AFRICA
As with Richie McCaw, Schalk Burger’s contribution will be vital.
But Jean de Villiers has been playing pretty well for them, too; he is vital to their back line for he runs such good lines. If they can get the ball to him in a bit of space, Brian Habana is always a difficult customer to handle. I am surprised Conrad Jantjes isn’t starting: he has now settled into international rugby and he had a much better game against Argentina although under far less pressure.
VITAL AREAS OF THE GAME
There are so many that you’re not quite sure about and under the ELVs as well, that’s another factor because I think sides are still coming to terms with tactical developments and very often have to change the way they play during the game itself. That is terrific; it’s the sort of game we need to develop, where it’s not the same all the way through. That is fascinating.
I am intrigued by the breakdown area. Both sides have got terrific physicality there and I think it will probably come down to the technical work. Who is the most clinical in that area because I suspect physicality wise they will be as tough as each other.
It could be an area where New Zealand gets an advantage. But whether they will be able to get sufficiently good ball to go forward off the set pieces to make that advantage tell, remains to be seen. South Africa will think the confrontational battle needs to be won, especially at home, and Schalk Burger is a key man in that area. But Richie McCaw could be a big factor on what happens at the breakdown.
WHO WILL WIN?
I really do not know and that is the fascination of this Test match. I would expect a somewhat more conservative, traditional sort of game but again, I wouldn’t put money on it because that is the fascination of international rugby at the moment. You are not quite sure what sort of a game you are going to get.
Will you see a game apparently with no structure to it at all or are you going to get a game that is based on the old fashioned winning the ball up front, a driving, very confrontational game with a lot of kicking not only for position but to try and turn ball over again ?
This is a very exciting time for the game; it could make some great leaps forward in the next couple of years. Especially if a side feels it has got to change the way it is playing actually during the game. I think then you will see real international players around the world, the guys that deserve to be there, going out with the ability to change things around. Potentially, that will be absolutely fascinating.”