It is now or never for Ian Foster and the All Blacks as the 23 named by the head coach attempt to prevent his demise.
From the outset, his appointment was universally derided by the supporters and they appear to have been right, but no one should take any pleasure in his struggles. Foster is a fine technical coach, who is popular with the players and well-regarded by his peers, while also being a kind human-being, but the head honcho position never seemed to be his forte.
Five defeats in six – a dreadful run which has seen them drift down to a record-low fifth in the rankings – has rather confirmed that. They have slipped behind the top teams in the game, faltering against France, Ireland and South Africa over the past year.
But it’s not entirely unsurprising. This decline began prior to Foster taking the reins with the final two years of Steve Hansen’s tenure producing inconsistent performances, culminating in a Rugby World Cup semi-final hammering at the hands of England.
That result alone should have indicated to New Zealand Rugby that the All Blacks needed a shake-up and that the continuity appointment was not the way to go. The governing body did not listen, though, and instead went for the safe option, leading to where they are now.
As a result, you have to feel for Foster in some ways, as he is not wholly responsible for the current malaise. NZ Rugby as an organization ultimately make the decisions and they have made a fair few poor ones over the past number of years.
The game in the country as a whole is in the worst state it’s been for some time and that is shown in some areas of the squad. While the quality is there behind the scrum, it is not of the required standard in the forward eight, and particularly the front five.
Their efforts up front have been a significant issue since the 2019 World Cup and, against both Ireland and South Africa, they really have been exposed.
Jacques Nienaber’s charges will once again look to get stuck into them following their dismantling of the visiting pack in Mbombela last week. The Springboks were utterly in control at the breakdown and also produced a solid showing in the scrum and lineout, albeit there is still room for improvement in those set-piece areas.
They are a team which is easy to predict, but stopping them is another thing entirely. The Boks do the basics better than any other team in world rugby, with their physicality, defence, kicking game and the aforementioned set-piece out of the top drawer.
Nienaber still won’t be completely happy with aspects of their display from the previous round but it is difficult to see where the visitors will be able to compete.
In modern day rugby, you simply can’t expect to turn up and produce moments of magic – like New Zealand sides of old. The pillars of the sport have to be in place and, unfortunately for Foster’s All Blacks outfit, they have not been there throughout his reign.
Last time they met
South Africa proved too strong for the All Blacks as they controlled the forward exchanges and the aerial battle. New Zealand struggled with the hosts’ kicking game and as a result failed to gain any territory or possession in the first half. The Springboks were duly rewarded for their efforts with a converted Kurt-Lee Arendse try and a Handre Pollard penalty to give them a 10-3 advantage at the break – Beauden Barrett providing the visitors’ response. Nienaber’s men then remained in the ascendency in the second period and three more Pollard three-pointers effectively sealed the win. Shannon Frizell did score a consolation but the Boks deservedly had the final word through Willie le Roux’s last-minute try.
What they said
South Africa are certainly not taking New Zealand lightly going into this contest with both Damian de Allende and head coach Nienaber backing the visitors to respond.
“It’s going to be quite dry and that is why I think the All Blacks won’t disappoint us on Saturday,” De Allende told reporters.
“Towards the end of the game at Mbombela it got quite greasy and I think it got quite tough for them and they had to chase the game.
“They are a world class outfit with highly skilled players who can break games wide open. We know how they can pass the ball around and what can happen if those passes stick, so we have to play for 80 minutes this weekend.”
Nienaber added: “If you look at the All Blacks, I’m sure they’ll get it right. Our job is just to make sure they don’t get it right against us.
“They’ve got such a good coaching team with massive experience, they have centurions in their squad and great players. There’s a good structure and organization back home.
“It’s a matter of time. They pushed us hard in Nelspruit, we only scored our second try in the last minute. We’re looking at this current issue with a fair dose of reality. It was tough and could’ve gone either way in certain periods of that match.”
The All Blacks, by contrast, have spent most of the week on the defensive with the future of head coach Foster up in the air.
Captain Sam Cane is also under pressure but he is relishing the prospect of taking on the Springboks at Ellis Park.
“It’s a hostile environment, but we quite like playing in places like this because it tests you,” he told reporters. “We are a bit higher (in altitude than last weekend) and the air is a bit thinner, so it is a massive challenge.
“It’s always been part of being an All Black, the pressure, but without a doubt it’s extra pressure.
“You can look at it as a burden, or embrace it as an extra challenge. You can only try to use it as a positive – as funny as that sounds.
“My job as captain is to lead on the field and training park and make sure we’re tight as a group and living and training the way we want to be. I can hand on heart say that’s the case at the moment.”
players to watch
Despite a superb display last weekend, the Boks have still made five alterations to the side. Three of those are enforced but they will be crucial as to how the hosts will operate this weekend. Arendse had a fine game last weekend but his suspension/injury has opened the door for Jesse Kriel atwing. South African back three players don’t get a heap of ball but they are vital to the game plan as they seek to put pressure on the opposition back field and gain territory for the team.
The second key ‘change’ comes at scrum-half where Jaden Hendrikse will look to maintain his fine work from last weekend. Hendrikse technically comes in for Faf de Klerk but, having come on after just a minute following his team-mate’s concerning head injury, it will effectively feel like a continuation of the first game. However, being named in the starting line-up is a very different pressure to coming off the bench, so his mindset will be slightly altered. Not that anything has particularly phased the young scrum-half in his short career so far having perfectly executed what Nienaber has asked of him.
Up front, there is, to an extent, another enforced alteration, with Joseph Dweba taking the place of the injured Bongi Mbonambi – albeit the Sharks man had already replaced Malcolm Marx in the initial team announced on Tuesday. Nienaber therefore resisted bringing Marx back and instead left him among the ‘Bomb Squad’. The All Blacks will certainly look to target Dweba, who hasn’t the great reputation in terms of his lineout throwing, but he can at least call on three of the greatest set-piece exponents in the game in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
— Gwijo Squad (@GwijoSquad) August 11, 2022
The battle at lineout and scrum will once again be huge and Foster has brought in the talented Ethan de Groot in an attempt to combat the hosts’ scrum power, with tighthead also Tyrel Lomax coming into the XV after a good showing off the bench last weekend. Both don’t quite offer what George Bower or Angus Ta’avao do with ball in hand but they are much better operators in the set-piece.
Foster will also look for a big performance from Shannon Frizell, who comes into the team for Akira Ioane. It suggests that they are looking for a slightly more direct approach as Frizell will no doubt play slightly closer to the ruck. He is very powerful and therefore a strong ball-carrier, and can get his side over the gain line by going through traffic. It will be much needed for the All Blacks who have been far too lateral in attack, which made it very easy for the Bok defense in Round One.
The Springboks were equally helped by the visitors’ struggles under the high ball last week, but the back three remains the same for the Johannesburg Test. Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan are usually ultra-reliable catchers, so they will hope that the issues they endured in Mbombela were just a one-off. If they can shore up their game and duly help the All Blacks win the territory battle, both will be threats in attack.
Main head to head
There is such a contrast at the moment as to how Siya Kolisi and Sam Cane are perceived in their respective nations, and it rather typifies where both teams are at. Kolisi is an inspirational figure, lifting the World Cup in 2019 after becoming the country’s first black captain, while his form over the past two years has been exceptional. Particularly in 2022 the flanker has excelled, elevating his level from top-class to world-class, which is the complete opposite of the struggling Cane.
The openside was long seen as the heir to the legendary Richie McCaw, but unfortunately he has got nowhere near that standard. Injuries have affected his form and, at the moment, he quite frankly doesn’t deserve to be in the squad. However, NZ Rugby and the All Blacks coaching staff have consistently pinned their hopes on the 30-year-old, so he needs to produce a huge performance on Saturday to retain his place. Should Foster go then you would expect Cane to follow him, especially if he fails to produce this weekend.
This should be closer as there are a few small tweaks the All Blacks can do which will make a noticeable difference, but ultimately their front five is not in the same class as South Africa’s. That is where the game is won and we can’t see New Zealand getting enough ball to score the points they need to defeat the home team. South Africa to win by seven points.
2022: South Africa won 26-10 in Mbombela
2021: South Africa won 31-29 on the Gold Coast
2021: New Zealand won 19-17 in Townsville
2019: New Zealand won 23-13 in Yokohama
2019: New Zealand and South Africa drew 16-16 in Wellington
2018: New Zealand won 32-30 in Pretoria
2018: South Africa won 36-34 in Wellington
2017: New Zealand won 25-24 in Cape Town
2017: New Zealand won 57-0 in Albany
South Africa: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Jasper Wiese, 21 Kwagga Smith, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Willie le Roux
New Zealand: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 David Havili, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Ethan de Groot
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 George Bower, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Quinn Tupaea
Date: Saturday, August 13
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick off: 17:05 local (16:05 BST, 15:05 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Australia)
READ MORE: Expert Witness: Lewis Moody on New Zealand’s rapid fall from grace and how he can only see a comprehensive South Africa win