Things were very different heading into the last test match between the All Blacks and Springboks in South Africa. Kieran Read was still captain, Sonny Bill Williams was starting at second five with Ryan Crotty, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith outside him, while Ardie Savea was coming off the bench.
But the biggest difference between that side in 2018 and the 2022 edition of the All Blacks is that the former had only lost one of their previous 13 tests.
That’s right, this was back when all anyone thought the All Blacks had to do at the 2019 Rugby World Cup was simply show up and collect the trophy. Seems an awfully long time ago now when you put it in that perspective.
The eventual 32-30 win at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria should rank as one of the great All Black victories. Down 13-30 deep into the second half, the All Blacks simply rolled up their sleeves and took the direct approach, grinding out three tries including Savea’s 78th minute winner.
You could make a case for it being a turning point in his test career, but the reason he came off the bench to play big minutes in that match involves another man who has been generating headlines as well lately.
Not all the All Blacks left Pretoria and returned to New Zealand the next day. Sam Cane stayed behind in a local hospital, and would be there for the next few weeks. That’s because he’d broken his neck.
There’s been plenty of talk about the now-All Black captain’s form this year, some of it valid and some of it typically over the top. But that injury and subsequent recovery and return to the playing field is an undeniable entry into the annals of All Black hard man status.
Cane’s cause has not been helped by being the first skipper to have not been in the dominant Super Rugby or provincial team for about 40 years, with the Chiefs’ disastrous 2020 campaign seeing him front press conferences as a losing captain nine weeks in a row.
He has the full backing of Ian Foster, however that might just be more trouble than it’s worth these days. Unlike his coach, though, Cane has the capability to stick in people’s minds with a big performance on the park. Answering the critics could take as little as one big tackle, especially if he lays out one of the Springbok hard men.
To be fair, though, the All Black side released annoyingly late on Thursday night doesn’t exactly scream out with answers to a lot of the very serious questions around their performances of late – especially when looking at what is a very powerful Springbok side.
Samisoni Taukei’aho is a clearly a selection to counter Malcolm Marx’s size, as does Scott Barrett’s shift back into the tight five to take on Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
Out in the backs though, there seems to be more of a deckchair-rearranging feel. Caleb Clarke’s return is intriguing, but it’s going to be about the hardest reintroduction to test rugby he could ever get. How often Clarke, Will Jordan and Jordan Barrett get to touch the ball when it’s not coming down from a box kick or bomb from Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard will be crucial.
The weird thing about the next two weekends for the All Blacks is that these were the tests that everyone would have been OK – at least by New Zealand rugby fan standards – with them losing. This is the Springboks in South Africa, after all. While it’s not exactly the mythical land of giants it used to be, that aforementioned gap between visits has given this test in Mbombela a bit of an old school feel about it.
But that was OK before they lost a test series at home to Ireland, so now every potential loss is draining everyone’s patience even drier. Quite simply, everything is against the All Blacks right now. It’s up to Cane and the rest of them to let that inspire or destroy them.