All Blacks, Springboks coaches say rivalry still strong
Coaches Steve Hansen and Allister Coetzee refuse to accept that international rugby's greatest rivalry is dying as New Zealand prepares to play South Africa in a Rugby Championship match on Saturday at Christchurch.
No team in world rugby has a better record against New Zealand than South Africa, and their rivalry was strong as recently as last year's Rugby World Cup where the All Blacks beat the Springboks 20-18 in a semifinal.
But in the opinion of some rugby observers, South Africa has fallen on hard times, is no longer competitive against New Zealand, and may not be again. Losses to Argentina and Australia add credence to the argument.
South African rugby has been buffeted by winds of political change, and the Springboks are given no hope of ending New Zealand's streak of 43 home victories since 2009.
Except by Hansen.
He refuses to accept a prognosis that South African rugby is in a steady and irreversible decline, accelerated by racial quotas, and the decision to allow leading players to pursue careers in Europe at the expense of local teams.
The All Blacks' record against South Africa of 53 wins from 91 meetings since 1921 — a win ratio of 58 percent — is their lowest against all traditional rivals. That's enough to convince Hansen that there are no easy games against South Africa, nor bad Springboks teams.
While New Zealand hasn't lost at home since 2009 when South Africa won in Hamilton, its most recent matches against the Springboks have been closer than any others, within the margin of a converted try.
"History tells us, regardless of what either nation's been doing prior to a test match between each other, the game is always tight and tough, and both teams have got a heck of a lot of pride," Hansen said.
"It's called a test match because it's a test of one's physical capabilities and skills, but also mental capabilities. There's a certain style South Africa play and it's bruising, physical, and reasonably direct."
Coetzee has done his best to shrug off the criticism he has faced in the past week from former Springboks coaches and players. South African media have likened the current team to a jumbo jet flying on one engine.
But he has confidence that the rivalry with New Zealand will draw out the best from his players.
"The world stops to look at a match like this," Coetzee said. "It will be a great encounter. History tells that it's going to be a physical battle, it's going to be a battle of attrition, and skill sets will be tested. It's going to be a great test of where we are as a team and how much progress we have made."
New Zealand leads the tournament with three bonus-point wins from three matches for 15 points, nine ahead of the second-place Springboks.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Luke Romano, Matt Todd, T.J. Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.
South Africa: Johan Goosen, Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel, Juan de Jongh, Francois Hougaard, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley, Oupa Mohoje, Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Lourens Adriaanse, Franco Mostert, Willem Alberts, Jaco Kriel, Morné Steyn, Damian de Allende.