It is not often that the capabilities of an All Black team are in doubt but as the Rugby Championship decider against the Springboks at a sold out Ellis Park looms large, it seems as though the New Zealanders have lost some of their aura of invincibility.
Not even the news that captain Richie McCaw has made a near miraculous recovery and is likely to start, will lessen talk of the All Blacks being knocked off their perch by the Springboks in what can only be described as the biggest rugby match this year.
It will be big in the sense that the Springboks stand a reasonable chance of beating New Zealand and even scoring the four tries that could see them crowned as champions of the southern hemisphere.
There is no running away from the magnitude of the game or the fact that the Springboks, under Heyneke Meyer, now have more self-belief than at any stage during his tenure as coach that they can beat the All Blacks and do so convincingly.
And that belief is far from misguided nor is it running just on sentiment or the emotion of playing at the home of Springbok rugby.
The All Blacks arrived in the country yesterday feeling battered, bruised and tired from the trans Atlantic flight from Buenos Aires and immediately veteran hooker Keven Mealamu conceded that Saturday’s Test will be the biggest challenge for this All Black team since winning the World Cup two years ago.
As confident as the All Blacks are in their abilities, they are under no illusion as to how difficult it will be to get their bodies in peak condition to face a Springbok team that is baying for blood.
“We spoke about it after the game and these are the opportunities that we play for. We are really looking forward to this week and we are here later than usual so recovery is a big part of the week. But we are definitely excited to be here and we are looking forward to the game on the weekend.
“When the All Blacks play the Springboks it’s always a big Test no matter what we are playing for. But for it to come down to this game for the championship makes it really special,” Mealamu said yesterday.
If there is anyone in this current All Black team that can speak about playing against the Springboks at Ellis Park then it is Mealamu as he is the lone survivor of the All Blacks starting line-up that played their last Test there in 2004.
That was a day that the All Blacks would rather forget – the lost 40-26 – just like most of their five outings at the stadium since the 1995 World Cup final.
But Mealamu is not fazed by the All Blacks’ history at Ellis Park - where they the last won in 1997 - and instead spoke of how his team’s preparations will be crucial in combating the physicality that the Springboks will bring.
“Not even half the team would have played there as All Blacks. It’s a new challenge for most of the team and at the end of the day it will come down to the best team on the day.
“We put history aside and make sure this team is ready to go.”
But more than the history that comes with Ellis Park, it is the Springboks that will loom larger than life itself for the All Blacks as the Rugby Championship title is on the line and that little matter of revenge after this year’s spoilt Test at Eden Park.
“When we talked after the game the Springbok guys said they will see us in Joburg. Obviously there will be a lot on it, no different to the other times when we come out here. The physicality is right up there and the game is always tough and that is what we will expect again,” said Mealamu on what awaits them on Saturday. - The Star