Rugby Championship: All Blacks face archfoe South Africa

Embattled All Blacks coach Ian Foster prepares for a Test that could seal his fate. New Zealand tackle archfoes South Africa in the Rugby Championship in Johannesburg on Saturday, and a sixth loss in seven Tests will almost certainly spell the end for the likable but beleaguered “Fossie.”

The ferocity of the Springboks last weekend delivered a 26-10 first-round triumph over the All Blacks in Mbombela, pushing Foster ever closer to the exit door. That beating, the biggest in South Africa since 1928, left not only Foster but also captain and flanker Sam Cane at the receiving end of a barrage of condemnation.

Following almost a decade assisting head coach Steve Hansen, the 57-year-old former fly-half took charge of the All Blacks after a semi-final defeat by England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Helped enormously by stars like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, Hansen lost just 10 of 107 Tests, and Foster has been unable to match that record.In charge of the three-time world champions for 26 internationals, he has lost nine, including to Ireland (three times), France and South Africa from last November.

Many critics believe time is up for Foster and, whatever the result at Ellis Park, he must quit or be axed. “I do not think Foster can save his job now. The noise is too loud. He really is on borrowed time,” says Stuff website columnist Mark Reason, who called the All Blacks “a laughing stock.”

New Zealand rugby writer Marc Hinton did not spare Foster ahead of the showdown at Ellis Park, where South Africa has won nine and lost five of 14 previous Tests between the countries. “The All Blacks are not just losing, they look befuddled. The fluency and flair, which have long been a hallmark of their game, appear to have deserted them.

“They are being squeezed and pressured and, frankly, out-executed by sides who are clearly superior to them.”

Long the top-ranked rugby nation, the All Blacks’ dismal run has sent them plummet to fifth behind Ireland, France, South Africa and England. Senior New Zealand Herald sports writer Chris Rattue has labeled Foster “among the worst All Blacks coaches in history.” In fact, Foster has the poorest record among New Zealand coaches since the dawn of professional rugby in 1996. Amid the media frenzy, Foster is thinking only of how he can stop South Africa from winning successive Tests at home against his team for the first time since 2009. “There is pressure, and we are feeling it, but our job is to look at the performance last week and improve on it,” he said. “I understand the frustration, but that does not change what we have to do. There is no point sulking. We must go to Ellis Park believing we will win.”

Foster has made four changes from the Mbombela starting lineup, hoping new fly-half Richie Mo’unga can choose smarter options than Beauden Barrett, now a replacement, did last weekend. Props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax are promoted to try and counter the power of the Springbok pack, and Mbombela try scorer and flanker Shannon Frizell is also elevated.

South Africa has made five changes and showed the depth of its forward talent by placing hooker Malcolm Marx, the man of the match last Saturday, among the substitutes. He was replaced in a rotational move by Bongi Mbonambi, who suffered an injury while training, leading to a starting slot for third-choice Joseph Dweba. Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber cautioned his team before the rematch, telling them that, “We are in for a massive challenge because the All Blacks are desperate to turn things around.” A legitimate concern among South African supporters is whether the green and gold can match the Mbombela performance, the best since overpowering England in the 2019 World Cup final.

‘Maniacs’

Former New Zealand No. 8 Kieran Read paused for a moment this week when looking for a word to best describe the South African rugby supporters at Ellis Park. He settled on “maniacs.” Current Kiwi flyhalf Richie Mo’unga said the effect of the high altitude at the hulking Johannesburg stadium makes you taste “the blood in your lungs.” The All Blacks face another level of challenges against South Africa at Ellis Park in the Rugby Championship on Saturday while already shouldering the burden of possibly becoming statistically the worst-performing New Zealand side for 73 years.

Foster and his players have been trying to shut out the noise of a disgruntled New Zealand public and a scathing media since a historic home series loss to Ireland last month. The clamor grew louder last weekend after a 26-10 loss to the Springboks in the first of their back-to-back tests in South Africa, which mark the start of New Zealand’s Rugby Championship title defense. Now it’s to Ellis Park, where 60,000 baying South African fans will likely enjoy adding to the crushing pressure currently being felt by their greatest rivals.

“The noise, 60,000 (people), the altitude. You feel the blood in your lungs, you can taste that,” said Mo’unga, who has been promoted from the bench to start at flyhalf and direct the attack in one of the All Blacks’ most important games of recent times.”But I’m also at the point where the outside noise doesn’t matter to me,” Mo’unga added. “I’m at a stage where, if you’re not in our team, in our squad, I don’t really care what you think.”

Mo’unga said he was just desperate to “have another crack” at putting things right for the All Blacks, echoing comments made this week by his teammates. “We’re desperate to want to improve and put out better performances than we are, so there’s as much on the line as there’s ever been,” Cane said. The All Blacks have handled the altitude and Ellis Park crowd before, winning two of their last three in Johannesburg where tests between the two have often been pulsating. But this time the Springboks are near their powerful best after dominating the All Blacks in Mbombela last weekend.

Lineups:

South Africa: Damian Willemse, Jesse Kriel, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Jaden Hendrikse; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Joseph Dweba, Ox Nche. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Jasper Wiese, Kwagga Smith, Herschel Jantjies, Willie le Roux.

New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (Captain), Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Tyrel Lomax, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Codie Taylor, George Bower, Fletcher Newell, Tupou Vaa’i, Akira Ioane, Finlay Christie, Beauden Barrett, Quinn Tupaea.

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