Mbombela - The doom and gloom over the All Blacks has spread into the unlikely realm of the world’s sports bookmakers, who for just the fourth time in the professional rugby era have made the Kiwis underdogs for a Test match.
And perhaps fittingly as the All Blacks prepare to name their team for Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener in Nelspruit, the three other times they have been tipped to lose were also against the Springboks, and that was for back-to-back games in South Africa in 2009 and a Tri Nations match in Durban in 1998.
The Boks duly won all three of those games and their fans will be hoping the bookies have again got it right.
The bookmakers are part of all the other “noise” — as captain Sam Cane put it — that the All Blacks are ignoring as they confine themselves to an exclusive training facility in Nelspruit where their rooms virtually border on a full-length rugby pitch.
They can train all they like to remedy a slide that has seen them lose four of their last five games, but they probably also need to freshen up their selection, and the speculation is that they will recall big bruiser Caleb Clarke for a gallop or two on the hard field on the Lowveld.
Clarke, the son of Eroni Clarke, the tough centre who was so highly rated by the Boks in the 1990s, has been out with a hamstring injury for two months but having been brought on tour, the sturdily-built wing is likely to be unleashed on the Boks at the expense of the much smaller Sevu Reece.
In the most important position in the backline, the Richie Mounga v Beauden Barrett debate rages on. This year has seen Barrett back in favour after a long period where he often watched from fullback or the bench as his rival was first-choice.
And while the All Blacks have just lost a series against Ireland with Barrett back at No 10, it is likely his more physical presence will be retained this week.
But it is up front where the Kiwis have mostly battled and it is more than possible that they will pick up a brand new front row. They have to pick a new tighthead after injuries against Ireland and new forwards coach Jason Ryan promptly called up a player he has been coaching at the Crusaders, the uncapped Fletcher Newell, and Ryan might thrust him straight into battle.
While Ryan is at it, there is a good argument for him calling up feisty Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, and on the other side of the scrum, Ethan de Groot, who has been outstanding for the Highlanders.