All Blacks brace for sell-out Ellis Park

South Africa host world champions New Zealand at Ellis Park Saturday in the latest episode of a rivalry between the top-two ranked rugby nations that invariably delivers drama.

Last year at the same Johannesburg stadium, a monster last-minute penalty goal by replacement fly-half Patrick Lambie earned the Springboks a rare recent victory.

It was only the second loss suffered by the No.1-ranked All Blacks since they won the 2011 World Cup in Auckland, and ended a run of five consecutive victories over their greatest rivals.

Despite home advantage and the backing of most in an expected sell-out 62,000 crowd, the Springboks start as underdogs in the Rugby Championship second-round showdown.

South Africa surrendered a 13-point lead when losing at the death in Australia last Saturday a day after New Zealand cruised to a five-try 39-18 victory over Argentina in Christchurch.

With the southern hemisphere tournament trimmed from six rounds to three because the World Cup kicks off on September 18 in England, the All Blacks could clinch a fourth consecutive title this weekend.

A bonus-point New Zealand victory and a home win for Argentina over Australia in which no bonus points are secured would give the title-holders an unassailable six-point advantage with one round left.

But when the Test begins as dusk envelopes African financial hub Johannesburg, rival coaches Heyneke Meyer and Steve Hansen will have one eye on the Championship and one on the World Cup.

Hansen has rung the changes when announcing three starting line-ups, with the visit to Johannesburg preceded by a 25-16 Test win in Samoa and the pounding of the Pumas.

The coach who succeeded Graham Henry after the 2011 World Cup triumph has chosen three right wingers, three centre partnerships, three scrum-halves and three lock pairings.

So deep is the reservoir of All Blacks talent, first-choice fly-half Dan Carter and centre-cum-offload magician Sonny Bill Williams have been ‘rested’ for the Ellis Park game.

“We have got to develop combinations and versatility,” stresses Hansen, “because if a player is injured during the World Cup he is out for the rest of the tournament.

“Facing South Africa will be a pressure situation and there is no better place than Johannesburg to get answers about players.”

He will demand a plan to stop South Africa copying Argentina, who scored two tries in quick succession off driving mauls from line-outs.

Driving-maul tries are a Springbok speciality with flanker Heinrich Brussow, recalled after four years in the Test wilderness, a regular scorer.

Hansen has no love of the tactic, labelling the eight-man drives “bloody boring” and “illegal obstruction” and wants the law changed to permit collapsing them.

Meyer has plenty on his mind, including the timing of substitutions, tactical kicking and a promising but raw centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende.

The coach came under heavy fire for replacing impressive hooker Bismarck du Plessis and props Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis midway through the second half in Australia.

“Did the coach not have a feel for the game?,” asked former All Blacks scrum-half turned TV analyst Justin Marshall. “Is he premeditating that certain guys can play only 60 minutes?”

South African columnist Mark Keohane was equally critical: “Meyer got it wrong and cost the Boks victory … he showed a disregard for the flow of the game.”

An area where the Springboks have traditionally been second best to the All Blacks is field kicking with many kicks in Australia uncontestable and an invitation for the Wallabies full-back Israel Folau to counterattack.

Converted fullback Kriel has one cap and De Allende four while rival centres Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu boast 180 Test appearances between them.

But Meyer has faith in his ‘Bok babes’, saying: “I would not have selected them if I did not believe they can do the job”.

KEY STATS:

– New Zealand and South Africa have met 89 times since 1921 with the All Blacks winning 51 Tests and the Springboks 35

– There have been three draws with the most recent an 18-18 stalemate at Eden Park in Auckland 21 years ago

– New Zealand achieved a record victory margin against South Africa by winning 52-16 in 2003 at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria

– The biggest victory by the Springboks over the All Blacks was 17-0 in 1928 at Kingsmead stadium in Durban

– South Africa won the last meeting 27-25 a year ago at Ellis Park thanks to a monster last-minute penalty from replacement fly-half Patrick Lambie

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