Johannesburg – The next World Cup may still be two years away, but Saturday's Rugby Championship decider between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park could provide an early psychological blow for the victor.
A bruising physical battle is expected between the top two sides in the world rankings, with the return of both Bismark du Plessis and Richie McCaw adding steel and guile to what is already shaping up to be an explosive fixture.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has made no secret of the fact that he has selected his team for this year's series with England 2015 in mind, and beating the current world champions would be a huge affirmation of his plans.
“This is probably the last year to experiment before that World Cup,” Meyer told reporters recently. “We have some guys coming back from injury in the next few months, so I believe that we have a strong group of players going forward.
“We've got very high standards, we want to be the best team in the world and we want to win the World Cup.”
Meyer reiterated that South Africa would not be reckless in their pursuit of the bonus point victory needed on Saturday (5pm) to lift them above the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship table, having narrowly missed out on the crucial extra point against Australia in Cape Town last weekend.
“Obviously it would be great to win the game and the Championship, and we are in with a chance. I never said we're going to go out and score four tries. We're just going to go out there and try and play positive rugby.
“It is very difficult playing against the All Blacks as they've only conceded seven tries in the last eight Test matches. Nobody has scored four tries against them for the last eight, maybe nine years, and in those days the defence wasn't as organised.
“We've got a plan but it is a difficult task ... they are a quality side and just to win the game will be a massive challenge for us.”
The All Blacks last conceded four tries in a 26-24 loss to old rivals Australia in a Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong three years ago.
Du Plessis has been restored to the starting line-up ahead of Adriaan Strauss as Meyer continues to rotate his hookers. The Sharks front-rower will get a chance to redeem himself with the All Blacks after he was red-carded in the last match between the teams in Auckland last month.
McCaw missed that 29-15 victory for New Zealand with a knee injury, but now returns to make his 120th appearance for the side in what is the team's most important fixture since the 2011 World Cup final.
McCaw will likely be a central figure in the breakdown, an area that has been vastly improved for South Africa in 2013. But Meyer also believes the boot will play a pivotal role in Saturday's decider and said the All Blacks have held the edge kicking out of hand in recent times.
“They've got a great running game but what makes them so effective is their kicking game.
“They outkicked us when we played in Soweto (in 2012) and we couldn't get out of our half – they kicked 12 times more than us. So if we want to beat them even before we start scoring tries, we have to match them with their kicking game.”
His counterpart Steve Hansen expects the Springboks to play a more expansive game as they go in search of the five points they need.
“The Springboks at Ellis Park is a challenge the team is really looking forward to, one we are very excited about,” Hansen said.
“We know South Africa will come at us with their physical game but to win the Rugby Championship they'll have to do that by scoring four tries.
“We are expecting more ball movement than we have seen in the past. The answer is pretty simple for us. We will have to match their physicality and be very accurate with our execution across the park, both on attack and defensively.”
Aside from the return of Du Plessis, Juandre Kruger replaces suspended lock Flip van der Merwe. A third change is possible for the Springboks if centre JJ Engelbrecht does not recover from injury in time, with Jan Serfontein set to replace him.
The All Blacks only other change is prop Charlie Faumuina replacing the injured Owen Franks, ruled out of the test at Ellis Park because of a groin injury sustained in Argentina last weekend.
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht or Jan Serfontein, 12-Jean de Villiers (captain), 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Fourie du Preez; 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5- Juandre Kruger, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Gurthro Steenkamp, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Franco van der Merwe, 20-Siya Kolisi, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein or Juan de Jongh.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma'a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Aaron Cruden, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Charlie Faumuina, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Tony Woodcock. Replacements: 16-Dane Coles, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Ben Franks, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Sam Cane, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales) – Reuters