Auckland - The Springboks won’t need to dominate the All Blacks’ tight five to clinch a momentous win at Eden Park on Saturday. Parity alone will be enough to put Duane Vermeulen and his fellow back-row bruisers into position to beat the team that Steve Hansen has selected.
It was a bit of a surprise when the All Blacks coach reacted to Richie McCaw’s untimely knee injury by immediately tossing the iconic No 7 jersey at greenhorn flanker Sam Cane. And pundits were completely ambushed by Hansen’s decision to drop battle-hardened veteran Andrew Hore for pint-sized Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles on Thursday.
“Um...,” said Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen when asked whether Cane had proven himself as a Test fetcher. “I don’t think he’s had that much of a chance… but he’s in line to take over Richie’s spot in the future.”
The future is now for Cane as he takes over from New Zealand’s most cherished player in a crunch Test that could ultimately determine who wins the Rugby Championship, and possibly who trundles into the 2015 World Cup with momentum, confidence and a psychological edge.
The 21-year-old has nine caps, starting five Tests including a sweep of France in June and wins against Ireland and Italy. But the Bok No 8 is correct in his assessment of McCaw’s understudy – he hasn’t proven anything yet.
Vermeulen only has 10 caps to his name, and it took less than 80 minutes of his Test debut against Australia in Perth last year for the Stormers brute to prove he is much more than a Super Rugby juggernaut.
Cane hasn’t even done that. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie limited the 21-year-old to an impact role off the bench, behind fetcher Tanerau Latimer, throughout the Super Rugby play-offs.
Hansen obviously likes what he sees in the lightweight openside flanker, and that means the coach has something in common with the Bok loose trio who would have pumped their fists at the news that McCaw had been replaced by a 100kg youngster with questionable credentials.
That seems to be a key characteristic for Hansen when it comes to selecting flankers, with Liam Messam chosen to pack down on the blindside – he has a ball-carrying role, but is lighter than Bok opensider Francois Louw.
The Bok loose trio of Vermeulen, Louw and Willem Alberts will thunder into the collisions with a 10kg advantage, per man, over the combination of Messam, Cane and No 8 Kieran Read.
Hansen says Read is “the world’s best No 8” and Vermeulen can’t wait to test that label. “I rate Kieran, but you have to see how it goes on the day,” said Vermeulen. “You’re only as good as your last game.”
Like Cane, Coles has been groomed for a long career with the All Blacks, but that doesn’t mean he’s any good.
This will be Coles’s first game against the Boks and he is expecting to have “a few sleepless nights” after being named to meet the challenge of Bok leviathan Bismarck du Plessis. Not only does the eight-Test hooker give away more than 15kg in the matchup with Du Plessis, he also has the burden of deciding the outcome of the match. Louw won man-of-the-match honours in a 38-12 win against Australia in Brisbane last week for work done at the breakdown that was only made possible by a potent shove.
Scrumming lock Flip van der Merwe has been retained and it’s clear that the tourists are packing down to apply the same formula this week.
Cane and Messam are not built to convert retreat into an advance and this could cost New Zealand dearly.
Everything suggests that Cane and Coles will be lambs to the slaughter. But the All Blacks are world champions and playing at a venue where they haven’t lost to the Springboks since 1937.
Hansen is either a genius, or an idiot. We’ll know on Saturday.
TEAMS FOR EDEN PARK
All Blacks: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Lessam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock. Bench: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Charles Piutau.
Springboks: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Bench: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandré Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak , 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Referee: Romain Poite (France).
TV: M-Net/SS1/SS HD1.
* Zelim Nel is on tour with the Springboks for Independent Newspapers.