Ellis Park – All Backs and Springbok matches are physically and mentally brutal.

As the All Blacks’ leg muscles tighten and their oxygen-deprived lungs rasp an unhealthy tune, Steve Hansen may take extra care to scrutinise his players’ faces Sunday morning (NZT).

Many New Zealanders know what to expect when their All Blacks meet the Springboks – injury-ravaged or otherwise – in Johannesburg because history reveals matches between the two sides at Ellis Park are physically and mentally brutal.

Of the 13 matches played at Ellis Park since 1928, the All Blacks have won just four.

The All Blacks pride themselves on their superior physical conditioning and coach Hansen, who will back his bench to drive down the hammer in the final 20 minutes, will hope his side’s fitness helps them survive playing at 1753 metres above sea level and in front of 61,000 hostile fans.

So when the players’ bodies are swamped with lactic acid, and the dark spots are dancing in front of their eyes, Hansen may look at his players’ faces to assess who possesses the will to force themselves to the point of exhaustion.

With the World Cup less than two months away, anyone who shows signs of succumbing to the physical trauma could pay a heavy price and Hansen will expect his boys to follow Richie McCaw’s example of pushing himself into what he terms “dark places”.

Hooker Dane Coles, who appeared in the last two epic encounters at Ellis Park last year and in 2013, recounted his test experiences at the ground.

“The first time when I played a test match, I only played half a game and I absolutely just couldn’t breathe,” Coles said.

“You get sticky in your mouth because it is so dry and the physicality – you feel you like you have been run over by a couple of buses at the end of a test match.

“You have got to be prepared to take it right to the limit.”

That is exactly what Hansen will expect from his players. Even though there is a good chance of rain, the weather forecast is for thunderstorms, that doesn’t mean the intensity levels will be lowered. It will still be physical and the collisions will be fierce.

Both sides will be forced to pluck a different game-plan off the menu if the ball is slippery, and if the Springboks elect for the cat-and-mouse strategy then it will suit them fine; Handre Pollard directing the ball into the corners, lots of lineouts, scrums and mauls.

The Boks may have lost a tier of frontline players with injury but any side with Beast Mtawarira, the du Plessis brothers, Eben Etzebeth and Schalk Burger deserves to be eyed with respect.

What an occasion this is for debutants James Broadhurst and Lima Sopoaga. In the past the idea of rotating an All Blacks side for a test against the Boks at Ellis Park would have been bonkers, but nowadays the World Cup obsession dominates everything.

Just as Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has dabbled with his selections, Hansen has been prepared to see how Broadhurst and Sopoaga cope with the most daunting of introductions to the test arena.

First five-eighth Sopoaga has looked confident at training this week. He proved during the Super Rugby final he is calm customer and if he sees a counter-attacking chance he won’t take the conservative option.

What if Sopoaga has a blinder, kicks all his goals and takes himself into those “dark places”? It would really create a conundrum when it comes to selecting the first-fives for the World Cup.

That is exactly what Hansen wants.


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