JOHANNESBURG, August 20 – South Africa hope to start repairing the damage of a disastrous Tri-Nations championship away leg when they host New Zealand before a sell-out 90,000 crowd at Soccer City Saturday.The Springboks defeated bitter rivals the All Blacks twice at home and once on the road last year en route to their third southern hemisphere title in 14 attempts.
But the tables have turned dramatically this season with New Zealand winning 32-12 in Auckland and 31-17 in Wellington and these victories coupled with two against Australia have taken them clear at the top of the table.
With 19 points from a possible 20, New Zealand need just one more from their match in Soweto and a September 11 Sydney showdown with Australia to win the last nine-fixture championship.
New Zealand stage the quadrennial Rugby World Cup next year and this means the Tri-Nations will be cut to six games while the championship expands the following year to accommodate Argentina.
Although the Boks are pointless after also losing in Brisbane to the Wallabies, there is no shortage of motivation for the green and gold to terminate a 13-match All Blacks winning streak.
It will be the biggest home crowd they have played before, dwarfing the 70,000 at Ellis Park who saw South Africa edge New Zealand in extra time to lift the 1995 Rugby World Cup before then President Nelson Mandela.
It will be the first time the Springboks play at Soccer City, a stadium that resembles a giant African cooking pot from the outside and hosted the World Cup final last month in which Spain pipped Netherlands 1-0 after extra time.
And the latest chapter in one of the greatest rugby union rivalries at national-team level will see captain and hooker John Smit become only the second Bok after retired Percy Montgomery to reach the 100-cap mark.
"We owe our supporters a big one," confessed coach Peter de Villiers, under fire like Smit and the rest of the squad after conceding 93 points on tour and not managing to secure even one bonus point.
"Problems have been identified and small adjustments made. We got caught up in two styles of play. When Bulls and Sharks dominated the team they had a similar style. Now Bulls and Stormers dominate and things are not the same.
"Perhaps it was taken for granted that everyone was on the same page and we did not find or have the necessary time to make sure. We have solved that problem," said De Villiers after making seven personnel changes from Brisbane.
The coach stressed he did not want to hear talk of "revenge" against the Richie McCaw-skippered All Blacks, who need six more triumphs on the trot to overtake Lithuania and establish a record for consecutive wins.
"Revenge makes you bitter inside. We must show character as a team and not seek revenge. We know what we are capable of and what we must do to become the best in the world."
South Africa consistently came off second best in Australasian breakdown duels and critics of De Villiers claim he has not learnt the lesson by choosing Pierre Spies at number eight with Schalk Burger and Juan Smith his flankers.
They argue that Francois Louw, considered the best ‘fetcher’ in the absence of long-term injury victim Heinrich Brussouw, should have made the starting line-up with Burger in the middle and off-form Spies on the bench.
So angry have some Bok supporters and critics been with the Boks that once-certain starters like wing Bryan Habana, fly-half Morne Steyn, Smit, lock Victor Matfield and Spies have endured calls for their demotion.
While the Boks seek remedies, the All Blacks are not resting on the laurels of some scintillating running that helped reap 132 points from four Tri-Nations outings while fly-half Dan Carter is back to his goal-kicking best.
"Things are starting to come through with a group of guys who all contribute, especially those who have been around a while. And we are not complacent – there are a lot of areas for improvement," admitted McCaw.
The outcome could hinge on how much South Africa improve. They were in an even more dire situation four years ago and defeated the All Blacks by a point in Rustenburg to salvage the careers of Smit and then coach Jake White.