YOKOHAMA, 20 Sep – A preview of the Pool B match between New Zealand and South Africa, which kicks off at 18:45 on Saturday at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Big Picture
Has there ever been a bigger World Cup pool match than this one, the 99th clash between the three-times champions and holders, New Zealand, and the rejuvenated double winners South Africa? Has there been one more difficult to predict?
The combined scoreline for the last three matches between rugby's great traditional foes reads All Blacks 82 Springboks 82, with one win for the newly-crowned Rugby Championship victors, one win for the world champions and a 16-16 draw in Wellington as a meaty dress rehearsal. No wonder everyone involved concurs it surely must end up being another close one.
In a pool they should dominate, defeat would not be the end of the world for either coach. Yet their verbal jousting, with the All Blacks' Steve Hansen criticising counterpart Rassie Erasmus for supposedly trying to put verbal pressure on French referee Jerome Garcès, revealed two men who understand perfectly the match's immense psychological importance, with no team ever having won the World Cup after losing a match earlier in the tournament.
So, with margins wafer-thin and stakes sky high, who might be the individual game breakers?
Both sets of electric and prolific young wings, for starters. For New Zealand, that’s George Bridge and Sevu Reece, who in their combined eight tests have already scorched to nine tries; and for South Africa, Makazole Mapimpi, who has poached eight in his first eight internationals, and the exciting Cheslin Kolbe, who has already crossed the All Blacks line three times.
A wet Saturday is forecast, which may well play right into the hands of the powerful Springbok pack, who would welcome any war of attrition up front and would, if the match came down to goalkicking, fancy Handre Pollard against either Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett, whose fledgling double act as playmakers could also be critical.
Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ inspirational captain, reckons the match could be decided by who prevails in the breakdown battle, which will pit him, Duane Vermeulen - who will be winning his 50th cap - and the abrasive Pieter-Steph du Toit against opposition captain Kieran Read, who's seeking a third title, Sam Cane and the flying Ardie Savea, who might just be the form flanker in world rugby.
Kolisi is back wearing the number six, so famously sported by skipper Francois Pienaar in the "Mandela final" 24 years ago when South Africa celebrated its greatest rugby triumph against, of course, the All Blacks. He will have the image of the late, great Chester Williams on his shirt amid a growing emotional feeling in the Springboks’ camp that it is time for the boys of 1995 to be emulated. New Zealand, of course, usually have the answer to such daydreaming.
Form guide (most recent matches first)
New Zealand: WWLDW
South Africa: WWWDW
Played 98: New Zealand 58W-South Africa 36W-Drawn 4
In the spotlight
The All Blacks have looked most discomfited when the South African defence have gambled, with a fair degree of success, on rushing up from the wings to harry them into uncharacteristic handling errors.
Hansen called the Springbok approach "rolling the dice" and sounded quietly confident about having devised plans to ensure they ended up with a double one rather than a double six. With Mo'unga calling the shots from fly-half and the former No.10 Beauden Barrett flying up to invent from full-back, much will depend on how well these dual playmakers, who worked superbly together in their Bledisloe Cup thrashing of Australia, can gel as they seek to get behind enemy lines.
Hansen's biggest surprise was to leave Sonny Bill Williams on the bench, preferring to unleash his nonpareil offloader as an impact replacement, just as in 2015. The Springboks' suggestion was that the injured All Blacks' powerhouse lock Brodie Retallick might play but that always seemed like mischief-making; instead, Scott Barrett, back after his red card against Australia in Perth, partners Sam Whitelock.
On a day when Hansen goes for his 100th different All Blacks line-up, it is the consistency of the Springboks' selection that is so striking, as they field the same team that thrashed Japan 41-7 in their final warm-up and only one change from the 23 who probably had the better of the Wellington draw. A significant change, too, with captain Siya Kolisi rejoining the fray.
Stats & Trivia
The defending champions have played 28 matches in group stages in their eight World Cups - and are the only team never to have lost a single one. They will regain the world No.1 ranking if they win.
At an average age of 28 years and 72 days, this is New Zealand’s youngest starting XV since the 2011 World Cup final, yet their match-day 23 still boast the experience of a combined 1,061 Tests - that’s 142 more than the Springboks’ 919.
New Zealand and South Africa have met four times in the World Cup, winning two apiece, but they have never collided in the group stages.
Frans Steyn is the one South African left from the squad that won RWC 2007 in France and is seeking to become the second Springbok to win two world titles after Os du Randt, victor in 1995 and 2007
"The thing that makes it special is if you ask anybody right now who is going to win this test match, then I don't think anybody can bet on the two teams. I guess we think we have a really good chance, and if you ask Steve and them, they will think they have a very good chance." South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus
"If people can see this New Zealand team can perform really well, then that'll give them a bit of confidence. If we've lost the game by a massive margin, well look out, it'll be hysteria and probably rightly so." New Zealand coach Steve Hansen