Centres of attention ... Crafty Lukhanyo Am v hard-running Rieko Ioane
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CAPE TOWN - It's one of the most intriguing matchups of the 100th Test between the Springboks and All Blacks on Saturday, and while Rieko Ioane is in red-hot form, don't forget the craftiness of Lukhanyo Am at outside centre at the North Queensland Stadium.
Am has been one of the rocks of the Bok surge to world champions and becoming the best team over the past few years, but now New Zealand went past the South Africans on the world rankings and are the undoubted No 1 outfit in the rugby arena.
And the 24-year-old speedster Ioane has played a major role in the Kiwis' resurgence in recent weeks, where they have swept aside the Wallabies and Argentina to edge closer to the Rugby Championship title.
Having terrorised the Boks as a wing in past seasons, Ioane is now right at home in the No 13 jersey for the All Blacks alongside David Havili, with Anton Lienert-Brown still making his way back from a hamstring injury.
Ioane looms large as a serious threat with ball-in-hand for the South Africans on Saturday, and the man who will have to stop him is Am – although he will need better help from his teammates.
The Boks missed a total of 40 tackles in the two defeats to Australia over the past fortnight, and with the All Blacks running riot in the tournament up to now, they cannot afford another flimsy defensive showing if they want to stop their two-match losing run.
“Our defence over the past years has become one of our strengths. Last week, we lacked a bit of energy in that. I don't think we, defensively, need to change anything,” Am said.
“All the tries that they scored, it came from individual errors – it was nothing about the system. Facing New Zealand, they strike a lot from turnovers, unstructured D. So, from us, we just have to be sharp whenever turn ball over or knock-on the ball, to try to kill (the ball) and try to get our D organised.”
The 27-year-old Am, though, is also blessed with those soft touches that any midfielder would want in their arsenal.
Those skills were highlighted in the 2019 World Cup final, where he delivered that delightful offload to Makazole Mapimpi for the first try against England, and later scooped the ball up off the ground to Pieter-Steph du Toit that sparked Cheslin Kolbe's unforgettable solo effort.
You might think that we won't see more of that from Am on Saturday, considering that the Bok camp have insisted this week that they “played too much rugby” against the Wallabies, with coach Jacques Nienaber even going as far as to say that they had planned to “revisiting what our soul is” this week.
But Am was encouraged by the Boks' willingness to move the ball around a bit more in Brisbane, and felt that the Australians' lead affected their enthusiasm on attack.
He was a beneficiary of an inspired decision by scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, who first took a tap penalty and later in the same move, produced a perfect grubber for Am to score.
“This past weekend, we created a lot of opportunities, but we just couldn't manage to convert and execute. I think towards the second half, we had a great start. But we were behind and scoreboard pressure,” Am said.
“That's why at some moments, it felt like we … we we ren't chasing the game, but it felt like we were kind of rushing it because we were trying to close the game down.
“That was probably one of the reasons it felt like things didn't stick, we were rushing things and we looked a bit flustered. I think it was purely scoreboard pressure.”
But what better occasion than the 100th Test between these fierce rivals for the Boks to put on a show, once and for all? Of course, Am will be downplaying that notion, due to the two Wallaby losses, but don't rule out the possibility of the South Africans reviving the spirit of the 2018 victory in Wellington, where they went toe-totoe with the All Blacks and won 36-34.
“Every Test is a big occasion for us,” Am said.
“In the position we are in currently, we are just trying to focus on bouncing back and trying to rectify the mistakes we made in the previous Test. We are focusing on our processes, and hopefully we will get the results.”