THERE seems to be precious little for the All Blacks to cling on to as the world’s most successful rugby team tries to climb out of its worst slump in 24 years.
Coach Ian Foster’s job is hanging by a thread and his two most senior assistant coaches have already been cut loose, both fired following the historic series loss at home to Ireland last month. Captain Sam Cane is under scrutiny for his leadership and there are also calls for him to be replaced.
New Zealand’s media has turned on its favorite sports team — and maybe the country’s most revered institution — by relentlessly hammering home for the last two weeks that four losses in five games is more than a poor run of form when it comes to the All Blacks. It’s a crisis.
The last time New Zealand had a worse set of results was in 1998, the early years of professional rugby.
Ahead for the All Blacks are back-to-back Rugby Championship games away to world champion South Africa, a steep challenge for a team trying to fight its way out of a hole.
New Zealand bookmakers have the All Blacks to lose, only the fourth time in their last 340 matches that they’ve made that prediction. The three other games were also away in South Africa, and New Zealand lost all three.
“As an All Black you love times that really challenge you and this is certainly one of those,” Cane says.
And yet South Africa may offer some refuge for the under-fire All Blacks, who have escaped the criticism back home for the last week as they prepare for the first Springboks match on Saturday at Mbombela Stadium, a remote and rarely used test rugby venue in South Africa’s northern wilderness. Tucked away in a resort near the Kruger National Park, the New Zealanders might also find something inspiring in the prospect of facing their greatest rival and a team that reminds them like no other of their own storied history.
“New Zealand have always tested us to the limit,” South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber says. Nienaber says this weekend in Mbombela and next weekend at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where Springboks-All Blacks tests often reach dizzying heights, will be no different.
The Springboks are favorites to win both tests, but more by New Zealand’s dip in form than their own impressiveness. Nienaber and South Africa also have doubters to win over after a 2-1 series win over a struggling Wales team that was much closer than the Springboks expected.
Nienaber’s words ring true that the Springboks expect to be pushed to the extreme, and no South African inside or outside the Springboks camp dares to be cocky when it comes to the All Blacks.
New Zealand has won seven of its last nine tests in South Africa and although the last meeting of the two on South African soil came four years ago — and with the All Blacks in a very different place — that record shows that they have managed to tame the Springboks at home in a way no one else has. Wales won its first test in South Africa ever only last month.
As always, to win in South Africa the All Blacks need to hold their own against a World Cup-winning forward pack whose physicality and commitment often goes to another level when playing at home.
“We’ll man up, but we need to be smart and physical. We’ll need a good combination of both,” says All Blacks coach Foster, who New Zealand media say needs to win at least one of the tests in South Africa to keep his job.
Foster is relying on two relatively inexperienced front-rowers in hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho and prop Angus Ta’avao to help hold the Springboks scrum in Mbombela. Lock Brodie Retallick, a powerful ball carrier, is out of the tour with a broken cheekbone in a blow to the All Blacks’ chances.
But Foster kept faith with flyhalf Beauden Barrett to launch a backline that South Africa still fears, and where powerful wing Caleb Clarke has been added to join dangerous runners Rieko Ioane and Will Jordan.
The Springboks will play regular halfback pairing Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard together for the first time this year and the pack is back at full strength after Nienaber made some bold experimental selections in a second-test loss to Wales for which he received backlash.
Nothing on the level of New Zealand’s reaction to its team, though. Despite the gloom, Cane insists the All Blacks aren’t far from being back to their best.
“It’s important we don’t focus on all these things that are going wrong because the truth is there are not heaps of things that are going wrong,” Cane says.
South Africa: Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Salmaan Moerat, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Jaden Hendrikse, Willie le Roux.
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Quinn Tupaea.