Along with the Bledisloe Cup, the Freedom Cup holds an important, albeit not quite as historical fixture in Southern Hemisphere rugby, contested between South Africa and New Zealand every year since 2004.
New Zealand astutely dominated the match in 2013 and kept their 100 percent Rugby Championship record alive with a second consecutive win in Johannesburg.
Saturday’s meeting between Steve Hansen and Heyneke Meyer’s outfits will undoubtedly go down as one of the finest encounters between the two teams, with the Kiwis ultimately prevailing 38-27.
With that being the case, there are several lessons to be learned for both winner and loser alike.
The Best Defence Is a Good Offence
Against a team of New Zealand’s quality, strategy is key, and to head into battle without one is tantamount to suicide.
Three weeks ago in Eden Park, Heyneke Meyer’s tactics appeared to be going well, with Morne Steyn kicking for territory and stopping the Kiwis from working with the space they love so much.
As we know, that fixture was thrown into disarray thanks to the incorrect red card shown to Bismarck du Plessis, but an arguably better approach was utilised at Ellis Park.
Although Ben Smith’s 11th-minute opening try would have looked to end all Springboks hopes, the Johannesburg hosts instead fought fire with fire, targeting the flanks with supremely quick ball and grabbing two tries thanks to some Bryan Habana magic.
After the speedster’s injury, it wasn’t until the second period that South Africa really recaptured that sense of fight, largely thanks to the full-throttle heroics of De Villiers.
Although fruitless in the end, the Springboks showed that New Zealand can indeed be hurt, just as Argentina did for periods several weeks ago, in the meantime showing the world just how its best side may be hit from its perch.
Crucial That Jean De Villiers Maintains Fitness Ahead of 2015 RWC
Earlier this year, South Africa Rugby Magazine published an article concerning the maintenance of one Jean de Villiers and just how one of, if not South Africa’s strongest asset should be managed ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
At 32 years of age, de Villiers is no spring chicken—in fact he was the oldest player in South Africa's squad—but was his side’s biggest star and most direct driving force against the All Blacks over the weekend.
Bath head coach Gary Gold backed up this sentiment over Twitter:
In total, the veteran—now coming up to 100 international caps for the Springboks—carried for 108 yards against Hansen’s side and was second only to Willie le Roux in that respect.
A well-rounded figure in both attack and defence, South Africa are severely weakened without de Villiers’ presence in the centres and face a tougher tournament should he not be fit to participate in 2015.
New Zealand Favourites To Win Back-to-Back World Cups
Having won in their own backyard in 2011, defending the Rugby World Cup in England is one of several major targets for New Zealand over the next 24 months.
Something that’s never been done before, the reigning world champions have as good an opportunity as ever to win a second consecutive Webb Ellis Cup.
Several concerns to feature in the tournament two years from now will be the ageing likes of Richie McCaw, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu, who between them have an average age of over 33.
However, Steve Hansen has some considerably talented players coming through his ranks and should be able to count on backs such as Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to be knocking about in what could be the last World Cup for some.
The 38-27 win over South Africa was far from easy, but it displayed just how strong this New Zealand side are as an outfit, which, if it can be maintained, will surely be asking all the questions come 2015.