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All Blacks-Springboks classic returns to New Zealand after 4-year absence

rugby championship south africa v new zealand
The two countries are world rugby giants

The All Blacks and Springboks face off in a blockbuster test this weekend that is likely to decide the Rugby Championship and suggest which of the southern hemisphere superpowers is best-placed to challenge for the World Cup later this year.

The first edition of one of rugby’s great fixtures to be held in New Zealand since before the last World Cup and the COVID pandemic, Saturday’s clash at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium is one both teams have long had their eyes on.

The Springboks waltzed to a 43-12 victory over Australia in their tournament opener in Pretoria last week despite leaving out 14 players and sending them as an advance party to New Zealand.

Ten of them were named in the matchday squad on Tuesday, although nominated captain Eben Etzebeth might yet be inclined to pull out after the death of his father was confirmed on Thursday.

Even without the abrasive lock, the All Blacks can look forward to a huge battle up front from the Springboks pack with six hefty forwards named on the bench to ensure full physicality until the 80th minute.

It came as a surprise to no one that South Africa loose forward Kwagga Smith said on Wednesday the Springboks would be looking to focus on the set-piece and smothering defence to exert pressure on the All Blacks.

Barring the absence of injured regular flyhalf Handre Pollard, the backline is probably the strongest the world champions can put out with plenty of power and flair to exploit any defensive gaps that pressure creates.

New Zealand opened their campaign in the truncated three-game Rugby Championship with a 41-12 win in Argentina after flyhalf Damian McKenzie played the leading role in an early blitz of tries.

In an indication that they think game management and accurate place-kicking might be more important than backline flair on Saturday, New Zealand have replaced McKenzie with Richie Mo’unga.

Beauden Barrett offers another playmaking option and plenty of pace at fullback, while his brother Jordie remains in the centres with the ability to punish Springbok ill-discipline with the longest of long-range penalties.

Up front, Sam Whitelock is absent but the equally experienced Brodie Retallick returns alongside Scott Barrett in the second-row engine room, while Ardie Savea leads an abrasive back row from number eight.

While due deference will be paid to the Rugby Championship in and of itself, there is no doubt that both teams view Saturday’s clash as key preparation for the sort of test they might face in the later rounds of the World Cup in France.

The match between the only two countries that have won three World Cups is being played in the all but unprecedented context of neither the Springboks nor the All Blacks being in the top two in the world rankings.

Those spots belong to Six Nations champions Ireland and World Cup hosts France, both of whom will be on the same side of the draw as the southern hemisphere superpowers when rugby’s greatest prize is being decided in October.

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