By Justin Palmer
AMID the platitudes and mutual respect for each other coming out of the New Zealand and South Africa camps this week, both know their World Cup semi-final on Saturday (6pm) is as cut-throat as it gets on the international stage.
A rivalry stretching back to 1921 has produced many epic encounters down the years, not least the 1995 final won by the Springboks, and their Twickenham showdown has all the ingredients of another classic.
Holders New Zealand, who stand on the verge of greatness with a second successive final within their grasp, cruised through the pool stage but clicked ominously into gear with their quarter-final rout of France.
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer hailed this All Blacks team as the best ever after the 62-13 drubbing but his opposite number Steve Hansen was happy to take his friend’s comments with a pinch of salt.
“He (Heyneke) has been very complementary, just about killed us with kindness,” Hansen told reporters ahead of the clash.
“He’s a cunning wee devil… praising us all week. While I know he means some of it at the same time they are getting ready to rip our heads off.”
The two southern hemisphere powers have met three times in World Cups, the last occasion in the 2003 quarter-finals when the All Blacks secured a comfortable 29-9 victory – South Africa’s heaviest in a World Cup match.
New Zealand have held the upper hand by winning 10 of their 12 games since 2010, the most recent a 27-20 Rugby Championship win in Johannesburg in July.
The All Blacks got home with a late Richie McCaw try that day but were pushed hard by the Springboks who enjoyed periods of dominance at Ellis Park and played with aggression and intensity to worry the world champions.
Hansen, who has made one change to his starting line-up with Joe Moody replacing injured prop Wyatt Crockett, certainly thought so.
“If we don’t come with our A game then we won’t get a chance. You can’t get caught up lapping up the praise.”
Meyer has named an unchanged Springboks starting line-up, an indication of the confidence running through a team that has long put their shock opening defeat by Japan behind them.
The Springboks needed a late Fourie Du Preez try to get past Wales in the last eight, their big powerful ball runners eventually knocking the wind out of the Welsh sails.
Among many duels on Saturday that whet the appetite, the midfield battle between experiened All Black centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith and opposite numbers Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel could be key.
The De Allende-Kriel combination more than held their own in Johannesburg and have formed a flourishing partnership in the past year.
New Zealand: 1-Joe Moody, 2-Dane Coles, 3-Owen Franks, 4-Brodie Retallick, 5-Sam Whitelock, 6-Jerome Kaino, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 8-Kieran Read; 9-Aaron Smith, 10-Dan Carter, 11-Julian Savea, 12-Ma’a Nonu, 13-Conrad Smith, 14-Nehe Milner-Skudder, 15-Ben Smith
Replacements: 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
South Africa: 1-Tendai Mtawarira, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 3-Frans Malherbe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 5-Lood de Jager, 6-Francois Louw, 7-Schalk Burger, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 9-Fourie du Preez (captain), 10-Handre Pollard, 11-Bryan Habana, 12-Damian de Allende, 13-Jesse Kriel, 14-JP Pietersen, 15-Willie le Roux.
Replacements: 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Trevor Nyakane, 18-Jannie du Plessis, 19-Vicor Matfield, 20-Willem Alberts, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)