Boks: Duels they’ll have to boss
Cape Town - A gigantic, bloody-minded team effort will be required - it always is - if the Springboks are to snap their eight-match losing streak on New Zealand soil in Wellington on Saturday.
The All Blacks are heavy favourites for the Rugby Championship encounter (09:35 SA time), but if the Boks are to defy the odds, here is a choice of just four individual duels it would be very useful for them to dominate (or at least not be badly shown up in) if possible …
Jesse Kriel (SA) v Rieko Ioane (NZ)
Look, we all know it didn’t go so swimmingly the first time.
Soon after his two debut Tests at outside centre (including a try apiece against Australia and New Zealand respectively), Kriel was asked to do an experimental job at right wing by Heyneke Meyer against Argentina at Kings Park in 2015.
But on a day when the collective Bok mindset seemed flat (Meyer later admitted he had pushed the troops unusually hard in training, as a World Cup loomed large), it all went rather pear-shaped.
The Pumas’ left wing, Juan Imhoff, romped over for the first ever individual hat-trick of tries against the Boks, with marker Kriel often floundering positioning-wise, as the visitors notched a shock 37-25 triumph.
Still, Kriel is older and wiser now, with 33 caps under his belt, and I don’t believe it is the worst crime against humanity that he is tried out at No 14 once more, three years on.
It is sometimes said that peripheral vision (quite necessary in midfield) is not his strongest suit, and that he has the physical gifts to become a decent Test wing - certainly there have been times in recent seasons where the Boks have looked a little frail from a weight and/or height point of view in the wide spots.
So I suspect that if he has a good (rousing, even?) outing against Ioane, Kriel will add another feather to his “versatility” cap.
Easier said than done, of course: still only 21, the fast but power-packed Ioane averages virtually a try a game after 17 Tests and earned a hat-trick against France at Dunedin during the June series.
But he’s also one of those brawny units in a wide berth for New Zealand who South Africans would love to see pressured in a back-pedalling capacity.
Can Kriel somehow help make that happen?
Faf de Klerk (SA) v Aaron Smith (NZ)
It goes without saying that this is a meeting of two genuinely dynamic No 9s.
But the primary reason why most pundits would regard Smith as superior – no shame there, it applies in most other of the All Black’s tussles - is because of his more “rounded” game than De Klerk possesses.
Although he operates at the proverbial million miles an hour, the little Bok scrapper is sometimes contemplating his next move before he’s completed the current one - hence a propensity for irritating errors at times.
The Highlanders favourite will make the odd mistake, too, but he also has a better appreciation for changing tempo and varying his play shrewdly when the situation warrants it.
De Klerk comes off two decidedly erratic Tests in a row (Argentina in Mendoza, Australia in Brisbane) so there is an onus on him to improve in Wellington.
One way, unless he is very strictly governed by instruction, might be to take some of the tactical burden off his own shoulders by allowing his flyhalf, in this instance Handre Pollard, to take greater command of things; that could be in mutual (not to mention team) interest.
It has just seemed at times as though De Klerk has called the decision-making shots too much, and not always got them right.
Now nearly 30, Smith has played 11 Tests against South Africa and only tasted defeat once; no prizes for guessing who takes greater confidence into Saturday, despite De Klerk’s unfailing tenacity.
Warren Whiteley (SA) v Kieran Read (NZ)
A lot of people would wish to regard this as “fact”: Whiteley usually plays his best personal rugby when he is also the skipper.
As with a few other people across the sporting spectrum (think Graeme Smith at cricket), it is just in their DNA.
But these days the popular Lions captain, of course, runs out somewhere behind Siya Kolisi for South Africa … and to be frank, hasn’t wowed the world at Test level in 2018, during three Tests, even if his actual work-rate is usually pleasing enough.
The mobile eighth-man also hasn’t yet tasted victory in four own Tests against the All Blacks, although two of them were as a replacement.
If Whiteley wants to nail himself down more solidly for the Boks, he could do with not just grafting hard but also making some yards – whether by stealth or in a more close-quarters, driving capacity - in his positional showdown with the planet’s enduring market-leader in the berth: Read.
The near-33-year-old, slowly building up toward a last World Cup for him in Japan next year, shows few signs of dimming enthusiasm or skill, and the NZ skipper has a 78 percent win record from 18 outings against the Boks stretching back to 2009.
He eclipses Whiteley physically, which is why the Bok No 8 showing off a few more of his stepping and linking skills - so often in evidence for the Lions in Super Rugby - would be welcome on Saturday if SA are to register an upset.
Frans Malherbe (SA) v Karl Tu’inukuafe (NZ)
Steven Kitshoff v Owen Franks on the other side is one for the scrum aficionados too … but if you seek dominance at scrum-time, your tighthead prop is so often the pivotal figure, isn’t he?
So South Africans will be imploring Malherbe to subdue the All Blacks’ extraordinarily bulky man in the No 1 jersey, Tu’inukuafe, if the national team are to at least establish an advantage in this department (and it’s where they do have a fighting chance).
His performance cruelly got lost in the disappointment and frustration of the Brisbane loss last week, but I felt the Bok No 3 had very close to a tremendous outing against the Aussies.
Malherbe’s scrumming was solid, but the Stormers anchorman also made some key, powerful defensive interventions - at least three - right on or close to the Bok tryline in times of great danger.
Such liveliness in general play would be hugely welcome again here, but what price him outfoxing the Chiefs juggernaut, who is seeking to make an impression while Joe Moody is sidelined, at the set-piece?
Well, if international street-wisdom comes into it, Malherbe holds the aces with his 22 caps; Tu’inukuafe sports six but with only one start thus far, against Argentina last week.
But he is a difficult player to get a handle on (literally) given his 135kg frame, and potentially very destructive when there’s a bee in his bonnet; he showed that in a Super Rugby game against the Stormers at Newlands earlier this year, although Wilco Louw (Bok bench on Saturday) was the slightly embattled home tighthead on that occasion.
The All Black’s direct scrum rival - some 10kg lighter, but suitably big-shouldered - may rely on a technical trick or two to subdue him.
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