Bench power, discipline give All Blacks an edge
LIAM NAPIER IN JOHANNESBURG
Discipline and depth are the attributes that could give the All Blacks a vital edge over the Springboks on Sunday.
While the altitude factor was cast aside yesterday, after an exhaustive season and relentless travel schedule, the All Blacks bench power could be a major trump card at Ellis Park.
Sitting 1753 metres above sea level, there was a time Johannesburg was considered one of the more difficult places to win.
Even if you weathered the passionate onslaught and managed to get on top of the Boks physical challenge, in the final 10 minutes chests would tighten, lungs would gasp for thin local air, and legs would collapse. Then the Boks would run you down.
The advent of Super Rugby has diminished those barriers, with New Zealand's top players regularly making the trip to the highveld, before the Lions were dumped from the competition last year.
"This is probably the first time we've spoken about it," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster claimed of altitude. "Through Super Rugby over the years we're just used to it. As long as you're fit, you get through it."
Recent results back up Foster's assertions. Last year, the All Blacks launched an impressive comeback to claim a 32-16 win in Soweto and, at the same venue for Boks legend John Smit's 100th match, Israel Dagg came off the bench to score the matchwinner in a dramatic 29-22 victory.
Rather than altitude, it's physical and mental fatigue that could see head coach Steve Hansen turn to his reserves, to preserve the All Blacks' eight-match unbeaten record in 2013.
The toll of a taxing three weeks, which included crossing three time zones in long-haul journeys from New Zealand to Argentina and, finally, to South Africa for the Rugby Championship decider, needs to be monitored.
Don't be surprised to see blindside flanker Steven Luatua, who will also cover lock, and halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, in particular, get significant game time from the bench. Utility Charles Piutau and loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett could also be called on early.
The All Blacks have shown confidence in turning to these players - and first five-eighth Beauden Barrett - to close out tests. Fresh legs could be the perfect way to exploit some big, but not overly agile, tiring Boks' forwards.
"That's a good point," Foster said. "It is important. It's not to do with altitude, more at this stage of the season. It's post a long Super Rugby season and we're now into the last round of the Rugby Championship.
"We certainly experienced it last week. We just felt the bench gave us something that we needed in the last 20 to 25 minutes. We're expecting the same."
Discipline is another advantage. While the Boks' yellow cards keep mounting, the All Blacks are aware that one individual act of over-aggression can punish the team dearly. It's a mantra they will seek to continue.
"The message is always the same," Springboks forwards coach Johann van Graan said. "We want to keep improving our discipline and concede the least penalties possible. There were some incidents in the last two weeks. Some were unfortunate. Some we've got to take a hard look at ourselves.
"The two yellow cards we conceded at the weekend [against Australia] cost us a lot of momentum. You can't get on the front foot."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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