Cape Town — Be afraid, Springboks, be very afraid. Yes, the All Blacks don’t look too scary up front, but beware their lethal backline at Mbombela Stadium on Saturday.
Some Bok fans on social media are just too confident at the moment. The locker-room talk has been about smashing New Zealand because their forwards are powder-puff and lack the grunt that helped champion Kiwi outfits of the past to almost always be considered favourites against South Africa.
Plus, they have lost four out of their last five Tests, including a 2-1 series defeat to Ireland in New Zealand, and coach Ian Foster is lucky to still be in the job.
But that is exactly when the All Blacks stand up … when their backs are against the wall.
The match-23 that Foster announced on Thursday may not dispel the question marks that have plagued the Kiwis this year, but if you look closely, they still boast some top-class attackers who have the ability to make the Boks chase shadows.
The All Blacks’ main issues are the front row and loose trio, where they are missing big names such as props Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Laulala, while the loose forwards are missing a hard edge.
Foster has gone for Akira Ioane at blindside flank, captain Sam Cane at openside and Ardie Savea at No 8, which is an unbalanced combination.
Savea is actually an opensider who should be playing on the side of the scrum, but Cane is one of Foster’s favourites from his Chiefs days, so he still keeps his spot despite battling to impose himself as a leader and player.
Hoskins Sotutu is a more abrasive ball-carrier who could have come in at No 8, while Shannon Frizell would also bring greater physicality as a blindsider, but he only makes the bench for Mbombela.
Another solution would be Scott Barrett at No 6, but he has been picked at lock because Brodie Retallick is injured.
So, the Kiwis’ main hope of getting any possession will be through lineout master Sam Whitelock, while Cane and Savea should go hard at the breakdowns.
However, considering Foster’s comments during a press conference on Thursday and the back division selected, expect the All Blacks to keep the ball in hand and run at the Boks.
The South African coaches like to point out that the Kiwis kick the ball a lot too – and they are correct – and it is a tactic that helped to keep the Boks in the game during their two Rugby Championship clashes in Australia last year.
But with Foster’s job on the line, there may be a change in approach.
“We have to go in with the mindset of wanting to play our game. There’s an edge, and we know we can play better,” the All Black boss said on Thursday.
“However, we can’t do that by worrying about the opposition. We have to be excited and hone in on how we want to play. We’ll man up, but we need to be smart and physical. We’ll need a good combination of both.”
Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett are the best halfback combo in the world if they are on fire. Barrett in particular needs a big game to justify his selection ahead of Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf, so he will want to take on Handre Pollard with everything he’s got.
Rieko Ioane is a devastating runner at outside centre, and Barrett and No 12 David Havili need to create space and unleash Ioane.
There is some real physicality in the back-three of Jordie Barrett (1.96m, 96kg), Will Jordan (1.88m, 94kg) and Caleb Clarke (1.89m, 107kg), and they will look to seriously test the tackle technique of Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Makazole Mapimpi out wide too.
The Boks have the stronger bench, so it will be up to the All Black starting XV to put their foot down and build up a sizeable lead heading into the final quarter.
South Africa were not too flash either in getting past Wales 2-1 last month, and are also missing Cheslin Kolbe and Duane Vermeulen.
So, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I smell an upset …
All Black Team
15 Jordie Barrett 14 Will Jordan 13 Rieko Ioane 12 David Havili 11 Caleb Clarke 10 Beauden Barrett 9 Aaron Smith 8 Ardie Savea 7 Sam Cane (captain) 6 Akira Ioane 5 Scott Barrett 4 Sam Whitelock 3 Angus Ta’avao 2 Samson Taukei’aho 1 George Bower.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles 17 Ethan de Groot 18 Tyrel Lomax 19 Tupou Vaa’i 20 Shannon Frizell 21 Finlay Christie 22 Richie Mo’unga 23 Quinn Tupaea.