New Zealand will face their toughest test since the 2011 Rugby World Cup final when they take on South Africa in the Rugby Championship tomorrow.
New Zealand have not lost a Test at Eden Park since 1994 and have not been beaten by the Springboks at the Auckland stadium since 1937. However, South Africa have already made history in this tournament, breaking their winless streak in Brisbane where they beat Australia last weekend, and they enter tomorrow’s match unbeaten in nine Tests.
“If you were to say to me who is our greatest foe then you’d have to say that is South Africa,” All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen said. “Both these teams have been one or two [in world rankings] or thereabouts as long as I have been here.”
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer was no less effusive, calling the All Blacks “the best team in the world” and describing tomorrow’s match, between teams unbeaten after three rounds of Rugby Championships matches, as “a big step up” for his side.
“I truly believe this is going to be the ultimate challenge — tougher than we’ve ever had before,” Meyer said. “It’s a great challenge. I love being in New Zealand, and that’s the mindset — we can’t wait to get on the field.”
During his many successful seasons in Super Rugby, Meyer built a reputation as a coach in the more traditional South African mold: bent on set piece domination, control of field position and accumulation of points through penalties as a first resort.
The Springboks team that beat Australia so convincingly last week — while given a firm purchase in the match by its giant forward pack — showed itself capable of far more than a 10-man style.
“I always get criticized for playing a boring game,” Meyer said. “I’m really happy that we’re scoring tries, but on Saturday [tomorrow] I’ll take a one-point win. I’ll take the ugliest win in the history of the game.”
The All Blacks expect a physical contest, especially for the tackled ball and in that area they may be under-manned by the loss of captain Richie McCaw to a knee injury.
Sam Cane will play his 10th Test in McCaw’s place on the openside flank and Liam Messam has been recalled to the blindside flank because he is seen to provide a more physical presence than the youngster Steven Luatua.
Hansen said he felt no surprise at the comprehensive nature of the Springboks’ win last weekend.
“They’ve been good all season,” Hansen said. “They’re trying to play some rugby as well as keeping their physicality. They’ve sped up their game. They’re using their backs a lot more.”
“Our execution has to be spot on, because it’s the two best sides in the world playing. Whoever executes the best on the day will get the chocolates,” he added.
To beat the Springboks and maintain a winning streak at Eden Park that stretches back to their loss to France in 1994, the All Blacks will have to improve on last weekend’s error-ridden win over Argentina.