The odds are stacked in New Zealand’s favour to claim their second consecutive Rugby Championship title.
To stop them on Saturday, South Africa must win with a four-try bonus point and stop the All Blacks from registering even a losing bonus in reply.
Given the recent form of both sides, it would seem this scenario is unlikely to unfold.
Steve Hansen’s men have been in rampant form, while the 2013 Springboks seem to have been cast in the familiar South African mould of bruising forwards and a fly half who can launch the ball deep.
The try-scoring stats, though, stand at 19 apiece in the tournament so far, and the Boks have a better points difference by more than 20. Furthermore, their defeat in New Zealand in September was coloured somewhat by the questionable red card for Bismarck du Plessis.
Still, to claim the title, they will need to turn up on Saturday with a new approach and weld it to an iron will to restrict the visitors to three tries or less and keep them seven or more points adrift.
You’d have to visit a good many bookmakers before finding a punter putting his house on that.
But when you consider the recent history of clashes between these two at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, where they meet this weekend, the impossible shifts to somewhere between improbable and not out of the question.
The All Blacks haven’t won at Ellis Park since 1997 in a 35-32 win against a formidable world champion Boks side that had claimed the Webb Ellis Cup in that tourniquet-tight 15-12 final two years previously.
Three years later, South Africa scored six tries in a 46-40 win—a result that got them their bonus but saw the All Blacks leave with two.
It’s to 2004 that the current crop of South African players can look to for the template required this weekend. Back then, a hat trick from Marius Joubert plus tries from Jean de Villiers and Breyton Paulse ensured five points. New Zealand’s two scores were not enough for a bonus of any sort in a 40-26 defeat.
Two men in the winning squad that day, de Villiers and du Preez, will take the field this week. They’ll know better than most that unleashing the same all-court game on the Blacks will come with risks.
But it is probably the only route to the top of the table, and while the Boks class of 2004 proved it can be done, Heyneke Meyer can look to Twickenham last November for the most recent demonstration of how to fight fire with attacking fire.
England’s win, albeit over a side at the end of a long campaign, showed that strong runners feeding off the fast ball from the breakdown can open and exploit gaps in the best defences.
It was the last thing the All Blacks were expecting from an embryonic England on a wet November surface, and the approach from the hosts on Saturday could leave them similarly bewildered.
It may take a gamble in selection to spark a backline with the talent to score tries. It would mean bringing Pat Lambie on for Morne Steyn much earlier than the switch was made when New Zealand ran out winners at Eden Park.
Steyn’s steady head and reliable boot could marshal the Boks into a commanding position, but Lambie’s invention and flair will be needed to puncture the New Zealand rearguard.
South Africa have the bodies to do it, but the top two inches need to fall into line. If they manage that, Ellis Park could be set for another classic.
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