Wellington: Managing risk while experimenting with selections, tactics and combinations has been the major theme in the build-up to Saturday’s Rugby Championship blockbuster clash between South Africa and New Zealand.
In another Championship clash, a revamped Australia head into their second match against Argentina in Brisbane desperate to build confidence ahead of the World Cup and appease home fans tired of hearing about the “positives” in defeat.
Meetings between the two southern hemisphere superpowers are always highly anticipated, no more so than this year when they will also face off in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September.
With an eye on that tournament, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his Springboks counterpart Rassie Erasmus have both made wholesale changes to teams that produced victories in the opening round of fixtures last week.
The All Blacks beat Argentina 20-16 in Buenos Aires, while the Springboks thrashed Australia 35-17 in Johannesburg and the Wellington clash will go a long way to deciding the winner of this year’s truncated championship.
Several front-line players were rested by both teams last week, with a number of Super Rugby-winning Canterbury Crusaders not travelling to Argentina and a large advance party of Springboks arriving in New Zealand a week early.
Only three starters from each side will be on the field at kickoff on Saturday and while there are experimental designs to both backlines, the packs are arguably the strongest available.
Hansen decided the time was right to give Richie Mo’unga a start at fly-half with Beauden Barrett shunted back to fullback, a formation which allows the possibility of fielding twin playmakers in Japan.
“We said right from the beginning that the Rugby Championship was about getting us ready to play the Bledisloe [Cup against Australia] and the World Cup,” Hansen told reporters on Thursday. “That’s no disrespect to the Rugby Championship, it’s just the way it happens to be in World Cup year. “We’ve got a larger plan, so to speak, and we’re working towards that quietly. “It means taking a few risks but we’re happy to do that.”
The Wallabies slumped to their 10th loss in their last 14 Tests with a 35-17 thrashing at Ellis Park last week, dominated by a South Africa team shorn of a raft of first-choice players rested for their follow-up clash against the All Blacks.
While the result triggered alarm bells back home in Australia, the Wallabies coach and players saw the match quite differently, and spoke of how pleased they were with basically everything but the score.
Australia shipped five tries but the defence was “good”, according to coach Michael Cheika, who blamed the referee in part for a “wrong” yellow card shown to prop Taniela Tupou.