After a promising start to the year, the All Blacks and world champion Springboks face a moment of truth in their Rugby Championship and World Cup preparations when they meet in Auckland on Saturday.
South Africa defeated Australia 43-12 and New Zealand defeated Argentina 41-12 in preliminary results that were almost equal on merit.
They will now meet in the second round which will be decided at the Mt Smart Stadium, the league’s stadium which has been invited to host the match because Eden Park has been given over to the Women’s World Cup.
Rounds are difficult but matches can be important.
The winner will have far less to worry about than the loser in the two months before the World Cup kicks off in France.
Both teams used lineups in the first half that they didn’t want to use in the second half.
The All Blacks have made five changes to their starting XV while the Springboks have named 10 of the 14 players who missed the Wallabies game and were sent to New Zealand.
The All Blacks have changed their backline, bringing back Richie Mo’unga at No.10 after Damian McKenzie played well for Argentina and re-establishing a tried but not always successful partnership with Beauden Barrett at fullback.
The squad is close to the one the All Blacks selected at the end of the 2022 losing season, which shook the confidence of many fans in the All Blacks led by coach Ian Foster.
Foster is now confident that the team is on the right track and Saturday’s game will be the ultimate test.
“We think we’ve done something and we think we’ve had, not just now but for the next six months, things that we’re excited about,” Foster said.
“I know we’re just about to start our campaign and every day we’re excited because it’s an opportunity to be together and improve our game. I think the team is in a good place.”
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber read reports from New Zealand last year about the struggling All Blacks and was skeptical. He had good reason to do so.
The Springboks faced the All Blacks at Ellis Park in last year’s Rugby Championship after New Zealand lost a Test series against Ireland for the first time and lost last week to South Africa.
The All Blacks won 35-23, a result that may have saved Foster’s career.
Nienaber isn’t ready to believe reports of the All Blacks’ demise just yet.
“I remember when it was written last year and how some said that the All Blacks were in trouble,” said Nienaber.
“I was impressed that some say that if they lose two in a row their win rate drops below 80 percent and that would be a big problem because a lot of other teams are trying to win.”
Fans will be eagerly awaiting the lead-up to the race to see where both packs end up this time of year.
The All Blacks have done well under forwards coach Jason Ryan but this will be his biggest test yet.
“I think this week is going to be telling for us as a team and especially as a frontcourt team,” Codie Taylor said.
“They probably have one of the most dangerous packs in the world in terms of size and ability and the way they play the game.”
ALL Blacks (15-1):Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Mark Telea, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (c), Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan de Chachikulu
Storage: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tamaiti Williams, Nepo Laulala, Tupou Vaa’i, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Braydon Ennor, Caleb Clarke
SPRINGBOXES: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Damian Willemse, Faf de Klerk, Jasper Wiese, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth (c), Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff
Storage: Malcolm Marx, Thomas du Toit, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Pieter Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, Grant Williams, Manie Libbok