I typed ‘greatest sporting rivalries’ into Doctor Google the other day, and of the first ten lists that came up, 8 of them included the All Blacks versus Springbok in their Top10. Even the shamelessly American sites, with their infatuation and preoccupation with only themselves, included the AB’s vs Bokke in their Top10. And so if you need to be told, if you didn’t already know, be assured that when South Africa meet New Zealand on the rugby field for the 106th time this coming weekend, it’s recognised around the world as close to the absolute peak of competitive rivalries to be found anywhere at all. It doesn’t get bigger, not just in rugby, but across the globe.
And so, while I lament I will not see our own dearest wobbly Wallabies grace the Stade de France for a 9pm kick-off on Saturday night (French local – 6am Sunday in Sydney), I am comforted in knowing that the two sides who will go on to rip the very flesh from each others hides after Wayne Barnes blows the first whistle, are well acknowledged as representing the pinnacle of competitiveness within our sport.
Are they the two sides who deserve to be in the RWC23 Final? Yes and no. Yes in that, self-evidently, they won when it counted, so there they are. They brought fantastic squads to the Big Show and turned on the blasters as they needed to. And ‘no’ because neither sides trip to the Final was perfect.
The All Blacks got here via Pool A. After going down to hosts France 27-13 in the curtain-raiser, they then skewered Namibia 71-3, devoured Italy 96-17 and eviscerated Uruguay 73-0. It was not until the Quarter Finals that they were seriously tested again, this time by Ireland in one of the greatest matches I have ever seen. And were it not for Jordie Barrett getting his legs under Ronan Kelleher to deny a try, and then for poor Caelan Doris to fumble the drop-out, it may have Irish eye’s a-smiling instead of the AB’s progressing 28-24. The resulting Semi Final was against the Michael Cheika inspired Argentina. And it must be said the AB’s fairly blew the Puma’s apart by 7 tries to not much in a 44-6 demolition job, and in doing so booked their ticket to the Big Show.
The Bokke got here by via Pool B, despatching a pesky Scotland 18-3, chowing down on Romania 76-0, stumbling and losing to Ireland 13-8, before weathering Tonga 49-18. That saw them into the Quarter Finals wherein, courtesy of a controversial Cheslin Kolbe charge-down of a conversion attempt, they KO’d the hosts France by 29-28 in a match for the ages. That saw them then take on and take out a remarkable England side last weekend by 16-15 in the Semi Final. I say it was remarkable as, despite many rightfully lamenting the beyond-pedestrian pace of the match, the Borthwick-inspired Englishmen, with their woefully incomplete squad, somehow made it not just to that Semi, but damn near pinched the bikkies as well, as it was not until the 78th minute that Handre ‘Ice Man’ Pollard broke English hearts by slotting a 50metre penalty goal and so secured the Bokke progression to the Big Dance.
Interestingly, along the way, each disposed of the others recent nemesis. Ireland had defeated the AB’s twice on the trot prior to the Bill, whilst the French had pinched the baguettes from the Bokke in their recent tête-à-tête last November. But in a mutual favour-exchange, just as the Frogs had downed the AB’s and the Paddy’s paddled the Bokke in the Pools, each took to the others recent foe in the Semi’s and ‘did the business’ the other couldn’t. As heartless as it sounds, when the metal hit the meat and the winner took the spoils, the Paddy’s and the Frogs were at the wrong end of the stick.
Thus we have the two major southern powerhouses facing off for global supremacy. So much for northern powerhouse eh Clive?
History & Form Guide: Just for something completely different, I did a bit of research. And it surprised me to find that while the Bokke first debuted in 1891 and the AB’s in 1893, the two did not confront the other until 13th August 1921 in Dunedin, with the home side taking the spoils 13-5. Since then there has been 105 clashes betwixt the two, with the AB’s winning 62 (59%), the Bokke 39 (37%) and 4 draws. But admittedly that isn’t really a reliable form guide given it is over a 102 year stretch.
So in trying to find some form, I then looked to series wins against the other and found it was 5 series each with 2 drawn. Ok, no joy there. What about World Cup history? Well, we all know each team are the only sides having 3 stripes on their right sleeve, including when the Bokke hid behind Suzie the Waitress and Matt Damon to grab their 15-12 win over the AB’s in their epic 1995 World Cup Final. But overall it is 5 RWC matches played for a 3-2 lead to the AB’s. No clear distinction there. So, let’s consider their last 10 matches wherein it was 5 wins to the AB’s, 4 to the Bokke and 1 draw. Right, nothing really there. So finally, in desperation for a bit of a form guide, I looked to their meetings in 2022-23 to-date, and found that a decisive 2-all as well. Bloody hell, there is less than one of my old grandads cigarette papers between these two!
Frankly, the only bit of form I can find comes from their last meeting, when on Friday 25th August this year, the Bokke fairly belted the AB’s from one end of Twickenham to the other, in front of over 80,000 gob-smacked Englishmen, to the tune of 35-7. Bear in-mind that was a score that was the heaviest defeat of the All Blacks in all of New Zealand’s storied history.
So let’s just say they are closely matched, with the AB’s having the marginal benefit of the stats over the years, but with their last meeting being decidedly a Bokke Day Out.
Match-ups to watch: At time of original publish (Sydney Thursday PM) the team-sheets weren’t out, so I may be guessing a bit. But anticipating who will be playing, there are massive match-ups to watch all over the park in this fixture, as the largely running and fast-paced rugby of New Zealand meets the kick and set-piece asphyxiation-game of South Africa. If ever there were two diametrically opposed methodologies of playing the same game, these guys are it. But just to point out three of the more delicious confrontations to watch:
Cody Taylor versus Mbongeni ‘Bongi’ Mbonambi. Taylor is a no-nonsense, reliable Hooker. But he gives away a few penalties, as noted against Ireland where his cheese for sandbagging a driving maul nearly ended the AB’s tournament where it not for Jordie Barretts gymnastics. Against him, the cunning linguist known as ‘Bongi’ may in-fact be lucky to be on-field at all after his choice words to England’s Tom Curry last weekend. And bearing in-mind the Bokke are without arguably one of the worlds very best players, let alone Hookers, in Malcolm ‘Karl’ Marx, and playing with Hooker-cum-Breakaway Deon ‘Neon’ Fourie as the no16 instead, the Bokke may be exposed a bit by the workload and pressure that Bongi has carried this far into the tourney.
Scott Barrett versus Eben Etzebeth. Both these lads are workhorses. Both these sides rely on their guile, graft and physicality. But both sides are also exposed by these lads hot and ‘not so rational’ heads at times. So while both can be heroes, both can also be villians depending the day. Which will be which may well have significant impact on this match.
Handre Pollard versus Richie Mo’unga. Richie is a no10 who does his best work with ball in hand. But he tends to do so while running from deep rather than flat. So whilst he is good, damn good actually, he is susceptible to a tight 3 or 4-man rushing banana defence with a blitzer. And that’s a defence the Bokke specialise in. Comparatively, ‘Cool Hand’ Pollard plays a vastly more bread & butter distributors game. He is nowhere near the creative attacking threat of Mo’. But that said, with artillery like de Allende and Jesse Kriel outside him and the likes of Pieter Stef DuToit inside, Pollard doesn’t have to be. But his calm head and unerring kick, from hand or tee, is both the bane and envy of the rugby world – go back and watch his 78th min penalty to beat the Butchers last weekend to reinforce that the guy is ice cold under pressure.
Further to that, we should acknowledge their combination match-ups. Frankly we could talk about them all, but to stop this article rivalling the King James bible, I’ll pick 3 only:
Front Rows: The Bokke will bring Kitshoff, Bongi, Malherbe, Ox Nche, Koch and Fourie. My God. That’s just awesome. Against that, the AB’s will bring DeGroot, Taylor, Lomax, Williams, Newell and either Taukei’aho (maybe) or Coles (probably). They are no slouches either. But for me, the Bokke clearly have the advantage up-front, especially at scrum time, and the ever-calm and self-reflective Rassie Erasmus will look to use it.
Locks: The AB’s will likely run Barrett, Retallick and Whitelock. Comparatively the Bokke will bring Etzebeth, Mostert and Snyman. Despite the physical impressiveness of the Bokke, I think the AB’s will have better impact from their Locks, provided ‘Cheese’ Barrett keeps himself on the field, especially with Greybeard Whitelock coming off the bench for one last hurrah.
Centres: DeAllende & Kriel versus Barrett & Ioane. If the Bokke choose to run, I think DeAllende and Kriel are the more damaging. And certainly defensively, Kriel is a better 13 than Ioane. So I give this match-up to the Bokke, but only if they actually use them.
The other player: the Paris weather will be cool, raining and so favouring the Bokke.
Nutta’s Fearless Prediction (aka ‘The Kiss of Death’): If the match were on an open, dry and fast track, I would back the AB’s. But it’s not. It will be cool and wet, the ball will be soap, and the match, unless Referee Barnesie pulls a rabbit from a hat in the 2nd half, will be played at a veritable snails pace. So it’s the Bokke match to lose, more than it’s the AB’s to win, I fear.
For the AB’s, it’s their ability to go from zero to flat-out from the opening kick, their freakish ability to score both sides of half-time, and to bide their time to then suddenly unleash tsunamis of point-scoring from anywhere on-field, that is as worthy of accolade as it is devastating to cop (as we have all too often). Not just as one of those guys who are the other half of ANZAC, but as a lover of open and entertaining sport, my heart wants the AB’s to win as champions of breathless, running rugby.
But given the rain, given the advantages the Bokke have up front and through the centres, and given the Bokke belted the Beejeezus out of the AB’s last time out, I have to tip the Bokke. For the AB’s to win, they not only need to play quick, but they have to be allowed to play quick by both the Ref and the Bokke. And I can’t see that happening. Further, I expect the Bokke to do what they do really well: play to the set piece for penalties, grind you into the dirt, smash into your quarter using centres and backrowers the size of small trucks, and then unleash blindingly fast wingers out wide. These guys are the masters of big-game, kick and scrum pressure, and they will bring all the big guns to Paris.
AB’s to score early, but Bokke to grind them down by 3’s to win their 4th Rugby World Cup by less than 7pts.
Team sheets will be added/updated Saturday morning and the Review will be written as the match plays. See you then Cobbers!