CAPE TOWN – It’s the Springboks’ biggest game before the World Cup. It’s their chance to fill up the belief and confidence tanks. It’s a chance to go back-to-back in Wellington.
The Boks’ blockbuster against New Zealand will feature no shortage of ‘smaller’ battles. Here those key clashes to savour at the Cake Tin.
Duane Vermeulen v Kieran Read
This is going to be a big one ... literally.
While there was some speculation to keep busy with while counting down the days to the big team announcement, Vermeulen’s name was never in doubt. The two No 8s find themselves in rather different situations heading into the weekend. Vermeulen’s form and class has resulted in him being considered a Bok-must leading up to the truncated Rugby Championship. Read, on the other hand, will be looking produce the kind of game that’ll shout “nothing to be concerned about here!” less than two months out from the World Cup.
Up until the Crusaders’ Round 16 loss to the Chiefs in Suva, Read had totalled just seven Super Rugby appearances due to the All Black resting protocol and injury. In that game, he wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t exactly his typical self either, and things didn’t change drastically from there on.
Whatever the issue, Read will be keen to prove that he’s still got it in this all-important year, and Vermeulen will be keen to show him otherwise.
Handré Pollard vs Richie Mo’unga
Steve Hansen pulled a Crusader out of the hat with this one.
But, on the other hand, he has emphasised the importance of testing depth, and of the nine Tests Mo’unga has played since his debut last year, starting just two, neither was against the Springboks. So it's not too surprising a selection given that the All Blacks won’t meet the Boks again until their opener in Japan.
Mo'unga has a hot Super Rugby season behind him, and while Pollard is the incumbent at 10 for the Boks, he has no reason not to want to prove just why. How the generals stand up on Saturday is going to be massive, as always.
Mo'unga's raw pace, ability to create for those around him and the fact that he can all too easily do it himself makes him a threat, and so does his game-reading ability and those slick touches.
Pollard doesn't come with all those tags of flash, but he can impress with the occasional silky touch and bring physicality, and he also boasts a passing game that's just as reliable as his boot.
Eben Etzebeth v Brodie Retallick
Etzebeth was massive with ball in hand in Johannesburg against the Aussies. The metres he made was a standout of his game, and who wouldn’t want to up the ante against the defending world champions? The South African hardman can be an absolute monster, and his line-out and maul duties will be as important as ever this weekend.
Retallick missed last year’s Wellington spectacle due to a shoulder he injury picked up the previous weekend against Argentina, so he’ll want to play a big role in stopping the Boks from creating a Wellington Part 2.
Willie le Roux v Ben Smith
Le Roux has game-breaking ability, that’s for sure, and he could play a massive role for the Boks in New Zealand if it’s that Wille le Roux that runs out at Westpac Stadium this Saturday.
As exciting as Le Roux is when he gets it right, we’ve also witnessed the fullback’s erratic side. Looking at the season he’s had with Wasps, though, the Bok backline is good to go if he carries that form straight into the Test arena because, simply put, he was on fire, and he’s ignited many sparks for the Boks from the back.
Smith, on the other hand, will go into this Test hopefully not still haunted by his nightmarish time in Argentina. The little game time he had in recent months was evident in the sharpness he lacked. Overall, he was not the typical Ben Smith.
But if that Smith does return against the Boks - if he starts - havoc will be wreaked from the All Blacks’ last line of defence.