All Blacks face season-defining test in Jo-burg
LIAM NAPIER IN JOHANNESBURG
Defeat to the Springboks tomorrow would taint everything the All Blacks have accomplished this year.
In 80-minutes, almost everything they have strived for could be undone.
That is their unrelenting attitude.
The All Blacks view the Boks in Soweto as the defining moment of their season; a brutal test of character, desire and resolve.
To them, there is no greater challenge than this.
A loss would strip a coat of gloss off the Rugby Championship trophy, tarnish their unbeaten campaign and end their pursuit of the top-tier nation world record of 17 matches.
Let's not forget the All Blacks have twice stumbled on win number 16.
"It will definitely mean a lot if we can achieve it," No.8 Kieran Read said.
The world champions have been fatless at setting new goals since breaking the nation's 24-year world cup anguish last year.
Now, they seek to emphasise their superiority.
Steve Hansen's men have been far from perfect this year, but they've introduced Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Cane, Charlie Faumuina, Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea with relative ease and remain well ahead of the cashing pack.
Their desire is to maintain the mental edge over their rivals - the closest now being the world No.2 Springboks.
This All Blacks squad want to be remembered as the best ever. They are, collectively, driven by that quest for greatness, but their inability to put two clinical performances together irks them and the rightfully expectant public.
Overcoming that long-held barrier is no small task.
"This week will define out team," Read stated definitively.
"It would be really satisfying for our group to solidify where we wanted to be. That was winning this championship and redefining being the No.1 team in the world.
"If we lose this week it probably chucks all that out the window. We've got to make sure we get the job done."
On that basis, complacency should not be an issue. Playing in-front of at least 80,00 manic South African fans at Soccer City will inspire.
But talk is cheap. Question-marks linger around the All Blacks' subconscious.
At this level five-percent makes all the difference to mental preparation. If Steve Hansen's men are not in the right head space, they won't handle the onslaught.
The buoyant Boks believe they can beat the All Blacks after rattling them in Dunedin and crippling the Wallabies in their biggest win for three years last week.
Heyneke Meyer's giants are hungry for more blood and enjoy nothing more than belting the All Blacks. They will do whatever it takes for victory.
At home, the Boks are a formidable beast, even moreso in Johannesburg where the All Blacks have lost seven of their 11 matches.
The highveld, situated over 1700 meters above sea-level, will test their world-class recovery and fitness methods after an energy-sapping journey from Argentina and limited training this week.
Johan Goosen, a rare attacking South African first five-eighth, has added much-needed balance, but don't expect the Boks to differ dramatically from what they know and love - physically dominant forward play and pressurising defence.
Their best chance is to slow the All Blacks' ruck ball and manhandle Smith. If they make the tourists play at their pace, mistakes will come.
But if Israel Dagg, Ma'a Nonu and Cory Jane are given anywhere near the same space as the Pumas allowed, they will again run rampant.
To a man, the All Blacks sit on another echelon.
But Africa is a different world; this test is in the balance.
Let the battle begin.
'TALKING IT UP' BY BOKS DOES NOT WORRY ALL BLACKS
You do the talking, we'll do the walking, warned All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
The Springboks claim that their world-beating forward pack will physically hurt the All Blacks in Soweto tomorrow.
Hansen wasn't game enough to take the bait but suggested his side will let their actions make the statements.
"It's good that they're talking it up," Hansen quipped. "Of course it's a challenge. It's a challenge every time we play the Boks because they think that [they're the best] all the time. Nothing has changed."
The Boks returned to their brutal ways last week by maiming half the Wallabies in Pretoria. And it appears they will look to pick up where they left off.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was the target of a vicious cheap shot from Boks prop Dean Greyling the last time these old foes met in Dunedin.
The elbow to McCaw's head saw Greyling banned for two weeks but that does not appear to have deterred the Boks.
The All Blacks will brace for some similar dirty tactics if comments from monstrous Boks lock Andries Bekker were any gauge.
Becker had no problems with Stormers second-row partner Eben Etzebeth head-butting Wallabies opposite Nathan Sharpe recently.
Etzebeth also copped a two-week ban for those actions, but, turns out, Becker encourages that sort of behaviour.
"A guy like Eben you don't need to speak a lot to him. You just tell him 'listen, go out and hurt people'," Bekker said.
"You need to pitch up with physicality against the All Blacks. If you don't, they're going to give you 50 points.
"You know when you tackle a guy hard and his shoulder pops, it's not by mistake. It's good work from our team. We back ourselves as the best pack in the world. Confidence-wise that's a big boost for us."
The Boks feel they dominated the All Blacks' forward pack in Dunedin and Andrew Hore is aware of the need to match that intensity.
"They really fronted up in Dunedin. If a few kicks went their way, it might have been a bit different," Hore said.
"They are giants. This is definitely going to be the measure of where the All Blacks are at. If we can front up to this pack at home, then we'll go a long way to where we want to be as a team."
The Boks' assertions did not stop there. Coach Heyneke Meyer accused the All Blacks of taking his side lightly last time.
Hansen's men would not make the same mistake again.
"I think they underestimated us because we struggled through the first half of the season," Meyer claimed. "They are too much of a quality team to do that again.
"It's going to be more difficult this time than in Dunedin. We were an unknown factor then."
HOW THEY LINE UP
All Blacks v South Africa
Venue: Soccer City, Soweto
TV: Sky Sport 1, 3.50am
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
TAB: All Blacks $1.45 South Africa $2.60
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c) Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Luke Romano, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Tamati Ellison.
Springboks: Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, Jaco Taute, Jean de Villiers (c), Francois Hougaard, Johan Goosen, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Andries Bekker, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Tiaan Liebenberg, Coenie Oosthuizen, Flip van der Merwe, Marcell Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Juan de Jongh, Pat Lambie.
- Fairfax Media
With Nonu out, who would you like to see paired with Conrad Smith in the All Blacks midfield?