The interest in this evening’s World Cup semi-final between the Springboks and the All Blacks is almost off the scale, even here in England where interest in the global showpiece went into rapid decline when the host country failed to make it out of their Pool.
There has been some talk about the “other” semi-final, between Australia and Argentina on Sunday but it is the playoff tonight that has the attention of the rugby world at large.
The Boks are underdogs, despite protestations to the otherwise from their players this week, not to mention the fawning praise delivered in the direction of the All Blacks by the Boks’ coaching staff.
As Steve Hansen, the coach of the All Blacks put it “behind closed doors they are saying something very different —not only that they can certainly beat us but will rip our heads off in the process. We know what is coming and are preparing to meet that challenge and give a bit back of our own…”
In other words, fasten your seatbelts. Clearly nobody has been pulled the wool over the eyes of Hansen , who was an assistant coach with the All Blacks from 2007 to 2011, and head coach since then. He knows the Springbok animal well, and it is not the dancing antelope you see in a national park.
Accordingly, the All Blacks are whipping themselves into a frenzy of their own. As Hansen acknowledged: “If we don’t enter this game in a similar mindset to the Boks, we will indeed end up torn limb from limb!”
No fine. No game of tiddlywinks, then. No wonder it has captured the imagination of the rugby world, and many others to boot.
“We are nervous, but not anxious, and that is a good place to be,” said captain Fourie du Preez yesterday. “I feel it is the biggest game of my life; Schalk Burger feels the same way, as do the other seniors. I know it is not the final but this game has a unique presence about it — as you would expect when two teams are coming from different build-ups but are both on an upward curve, and will collide with the backdrop of 90 years of fierce rivalry between the countries, which no other countries can compare to.”
Du Preez will hearten his team’ supporters with these words: “For us, it is not good enough to make the semi-final, we will not accept that as a pass mark. We want to be in the final and will not accept losing with dignity to the All Blacks, which some people out there are saying is acceptable.”
That is defeatist talk, and captain Du Preez will have none of it.
“There are so many things pointing towards us peaking now at the real business end of the World Cup,” he said. “We have been fighting for our lives since September 19 (the day they lost to Japan), and each week since then we have not only won but got just that little bit better, while a number of players coming back from injury now have four or five games under the belt and are coming into their best form.
“We also started the World Cup with a novice axis between Handre Pollard (10), Damian de Allende (12) and Jesse Kriel (13), but they are also now five games down the World Cup track as a combination.
“We are in a good place, we fear nobody, we respect the Al Blacks hugely, but we know we have the game to put them under pressure, and if we can do that, who knows what will happen, because it has not yet happened to the All Blacks in this World Cup.”
The All Blacks are humans, Du Preez is suggesting, just like everybody else, and they are not used to pressure. Coach Hansen has admitted that possibly the worst thing that could have happened to his team was to beat their old World Cup nemesis, France, 62-13 in the quarters. Hansen says he has been waging a psychological war with his players ever since, trying to bring them back down to earth and warn them that the Boks are waiting in ambush.
Meyer has had no such problem. His players have been fighting their back into contention since Japan, and in the quarter-finals were six minutes from losing the match. The Boks need no reminding that they are fallible. The same cannot be said for the All Blacks and, as Hansen worries, pride comes before a fall.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez (c), 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
BY Mike Greenaway in London
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