WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Sep 14 – The All Blacks are on the verge of wrapping up the Rugby Championship with two games to spare when they face a struggling Springbok side in Wellington on Saturday.
The world champions start as heavy favourites with the once ferocious battles between New Zealand and South Africa becoming a fading memory.
The All Blacks have won 11 of their last 12 encounters, including the last six by an average margin of 23 points.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi said South Africa’s aim was simply to reduce their error rate and “give it our best shot”, while the All Blacks were motivated by the silverware and not the traditional rivalry.
“It’s a focus of ours to win this championship and we’d love to do it in four games. We’ve got that opportunity and hopefully we can perform out there tomorrow,” said captain New Zealand captain Kieran Read.
He then struggled to talk up the Springboks, who were once regarded as New Zealand’s fiercest rivals but arrive in disarray after two straight defeats and with coach Rassie Erasmus voicing fears he could get the sack.
“Oh, look, I don’t know. It is an old foe of ours and each team around the world has its special kind of meanings for us as All Blacks to play against,” the diplomatic Read said.
“The South Africans are special in their own way. It’s hard to pinpoint.”
The All Blacks go into the Test with a maximum 15 points from three games while South Africa are second with six points with Australia and Argentina on four.
A bonus-point win would seal a third straight title for New Zealand, who have won 15 of the 22 southern hemisphere championships since 1996.
– ‘Best team in the world’ –
Despite the contrasting fortunes of the two sides, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen claimed South Africa, now ranked just seventh in the world, could be considered favourites.
“South Africa are going to be desperate to put a performance on the park. Very rarely do they lose twice in a row, let alone three times in a row,” Hansen said.
But in the Springboks’ camp, Erasmus suggested early in the week he would be happy with a “close loss”, and Test Kolisi expressed the same view.
“He’s being honest. He just wants us to give our best no matter what the consequences,” the Springbok captain said.
“As long as we walk off the field and look each other in the eye and say ‘we’ve given it our best shot’, that’s what he wants from us.”
Kolisi said the Springboks had learned from the mistakes made in their losses to Argentina and Australia, and how they fared against the All Blacks would be a measure of how much they had improved.
“Obviously, we know what’s ahead of us playing the best team in the world,” he said.
“Wanting to improve, that’s the biggest thing. The team wants to get better.
“The important thing is obviously finishing. We create such a lot of opportunities and we’re not finishing… we do all the hard work getting to the 22 and then we’ll make a mistake, losing the ball or knock on the ball or just turnover the ball.”
In the New Zealand leg of the Rugby Championship last year, the All Blacks won 57-0, their biggest winning margin against South Africa, but in the return match in Cape Town they scraped home 25-24.