Springboks aim to repeat history - the All Blacks want to rewrite it
The spirit of 1995 will be in the Twickenham air for South Africa on Saturday, memories of that against-the-odds World Cup final win over New Zealand fanning thoughts of a repeat showing in what Springbok captain, Fourie du Preez, believes is ‘the greatest game of his life’.
Spine-tingling, all-consuming, transcendent, it was a result that reverberated round the world. If history is to repeat itself, then the sell-out crowd is in for a treat.
It will, of course, take an extraordinary performance from South Africa if the champions are to be denied their tilt at becoming the first side in history to win
back-to-back World Cups. That feat would cement their status as “the best team in history”, although the claim has already been made on their behalf this week by Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer.
First soften them up with kindness, then finish off the job. The All Blacks are primed to resist the sucker punch.
“It will be brutal,” said Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain who is preparing to lead his team for a record 12th time in a World Cup match. “Most of my scars have come from games against the Springboks. I’ll happily take a few more on Saturday if we do the job.” McCaw revealed that the squad had been addressed by Willie Apiata, the first Kiwi to be awarded the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, for his service in Afghanistan.
Twenty years ago, Francois Pienaar had the support of 43 million souls in the rainbow nation, an iconic president and a low-flying jumbo jet to assist the cause. This Springbok side will have to draw on the energy of each other, a sense of brotherhood forged through the adversity of defeat by Japan on the opening weekend.
Members of the Nelson Mandela-inspired South Africa team of 1995 are gathering in Trafalgar Square early this morning for what is billed as a mass ‘Jog the Memory’, a two-mile charity run for players and spectators. Several hours later, those to whom the Springbok jersey has been passed down intend to put in the hard yards of their own.
This fixture loomed large in the minds of both du Preez and vice-captain Schalk Burger while they were playing for Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo. “We have been talking about it since last November,” said Du Preez. “New Zealand have been the No 1-ranked side in the world for five years. It is a massive, massive game.”
Du Preez is a member of an exclusive club with seven wins in 12 outings against the All Blacks, a mark of his own cerebral prowess on the rugby field as well as an indication that if there is one side with the mental fortitude and physical capacity to trouble New Zealand, it is South Africa.
The 33-year-old scrum-half was the principal architect of the narrow quarter-final win over Wales last weekend, identifying a fault line in the Wales defence which had seemed impregnable, and exploiting it to score with five minutes remaining.
“Fourie has the ability to see things others don’t see,” forwards coach Johann van Graan said yesterday after the Boks had wrapped up their training at Twickenham. “Someone of talent can hit a target nobody else can hit but only a genius can hit a target no one else can see. That is Fourie.”
It will probably take more than a single Du Preez piece of magic to stem the seemingly irresistible black-shirted tide. The links with the World Cup of 1995 extend also to New Zealand having a fearsome try-scoring figure wearing No 11, with Julian Savea evoking comparisons with what most people at the time thought to be the one-and-only Jonah Lomu. Savea, though, is surpassing the feats of that man-mountain, with his hat-trick against France last weekend taking his tally of tries for the tournament to a record-equalling eight.
In his 39 Tests, Savea has scored 38 tries. Lomu, a phenomenon of his day, scored 37 tries in 63 Tests. Remarkably, not one of those tries by either player was scored against South Africa.
The Springboks are supremely aware of the threat posed by a man whose full-frontal running was called “mildly terrifying” by Burger, a flanker who has dished out his own brand of physical pain to those who have had the misfortune to get in his way down the years. And South Africa, of course, have their own strike-weapon in Bryan Habana, also in pursuit of World Cup try-scoring records.
The contest is likely to be shaped by events up front, with the clash of the back rows sure to be shuddering. On that outcome rests so much. The young locks will also have seminal parts.
New Zealand have a relative rookie on the loosehead in Joe Moody, but the real gulf in experience lies in midfield. New Zealand are wise and proven, South Africa are not. If the combined force that is Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith dominate proceedings, swamping the tyro line-up of Handre Pollard, Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel, then New Zealand will be in their pomp and on their way to the final.
History is beckoning for the All Blacks. South Africa will have to invoke all the power of their own historical reference point if they are to deny them.