Wellington: New Zealand’s Rugby Championship clash against South Africa on Saturday could define the way the international game is played in the future.
The table-topping All Blacks, who have always preferred to play a high-tempo style, have taken that up another level this year, if not quite clicking in their execution.
Last year during the World Cup, mindful of past failures, they went back into their shell during the knockout stages of the global showpiece, adopting conservative, no-mistake tactics to ensure they secured their second Webb Ellis trophy.
Under new coach Steve Hansen, however, the team has been attempting to move the game forward, with a mobile pack just as adept at hitting rucks and driving opposition backwards as they are at getting wide to support ball carriers as the point of attack is moved back and forth across the field at speed.
Atrocious weather conditions last week in Wellington, and a bruising Argentina hoping to make their mark on the competition, stymied that type of enterprise.
With a covered venue at Otago Stadium, however, many pundits and fans will see the match as the opportunity to stamp that new game plan on the world with authority, if the passes stick and mistakes are eliminated.
By contrast, the Springboks appear content to stick to a simple plan, with their massive pack bludgeoning their way down field before fly-half Morne Steyn engages his first, second and third instinct to kick the ball, either for territory or high in the air to force mistakes from the opposition.
The game’s rules, however, have moved on, giving the attacking side more incentive to hold on to the ball, which the All Blacks seem keen to exploit, though Steyn appears happy to stick to what has worked for them in the past.
“We’ve won a Tri-Nations with the same game plan and in 2007 we won the World Cup with these tactics. We have to stay with this strategy,” Steyn told Fairfax Media earlier this week.
“It’s not kicking the ball away; it’s kicking for a purpose.”
Coach Heyneke Meyer, who is also rebuilding the Springboks with the eye to the 2015 World Cup, has backed Steyn to guide his young team around the park, for the time being, and to play to their strengths.
As such, he has named a massive loose forward trio, bringing back Francois Louw to play as openside flanker, and Hansen said it was no surprise for Meyer to make those selection decisions.
They’ve clearly underlined what their strengths are - it’s a kick-chase game, and a lot of driving and physicality up front,”
I can’t imagine them wanting to change that, but you’ve got to expect the unexpected as well.”