South Africa vs. New Zealand: Key Battles to Watch
Johannesburg’s Ellis Park is set to play host to an almighty encounter between two of rugby’s biggest patrons when New Zealand and South Africa clash on Saturday.
With four points currently separating the two sides, only a bonus-point victory will be enough for Heyneke Meyer’s men to secure the Rugby Championship.
However, even then New Zealand can keep their hopes of tournament triumph alive should they secure a losing bonus point by finishing within a converted try of their opponents.
In a clash of such titanic proportions and with so much on the line, the individual matchups will likely decide Saturday’s finale.
1. Jannie Du Plessis vs. Tony Woodcock
With an average age of 31 and more than 150 international caps between them, it’s safe to say that Jannie Du Plessis and Tony Woodcock make for an incredibly experienced front-row duel this weekend.
With Southern Hemisphere teams still adapting to the new-look scrum, the set piece remains a pivotal part of any forward battles, all of which this particular duo will influence massively.
In September, Jannie Du Plessis was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that while the challenge wasn’t malicious, his younger brother Bismarck "was looking to hurt Dan Carter" when he was sin binned for a challenge on the Kiwi three weeks ago.
With that fire seeming to run in the family, it’s very likely that the older of the Du Plessis siblings will take a similar tact in his methods, and will need to in order to fight off the challenge of Woodcock.
2. Morne Steyn vs. Aaron Cruden
With Dan Carter sidelined with a shoulder injury, there’s perhaps no other side in this tournament who can call upon as reliable a selection of backups at fly-half than New Zealand.
This Saturday, Aaron Cruden will continue to deputise at No. 10 where he’ll make his third appearance of the tournament.
Opposite the Chiefs back is Morne Steyn, who represents a far different style of play to the New Zealand playmaker. Steyn’s kicking for territory will be a crucial element of any success the Springboks are to have, preventing the All Blacks from seeing the space they tend to thrive upon.
Meanwhile, Cruden will offer a more exciting approach, paying little mind to the losing bonus point his team need, instead sticking with the high-tempo running game that suited so well in previous outings against Australia and Argentina.
3. Eben Etzebeth vs. Sam Whitelock
Two players likely to appear in this fixture for close to another decade, Eben Etzebeth and Sam Whitelock have played huge roles for their respective sides in this competition despite holding a collective age of just 45 years.
Twenty-one-year-old Etzebeth has been nothing short of sensational for the Springboks, showing his potential while carrying ball in hand but getting about the pitch with the mobility of a back-rower.
Whitelock has performed a similar duty for Steve Hansen’s side, functioning excellently alongside his partner in crime, Brodie Retallick.
Both of these towering titans will do their bit to steady the scrum, but it’s their performance at the line-out as well as in the loose that matters more in a match that’s bound to include tries en masse.
4. Bryan Habana vs. Ben Smith
Three weeks ago in Eden Park, the backs only had so much of a say on the scoring matters as forwards scored all five tries in the New Zealand win.
Therefore, there lies a big responsibility with the likes of Bryan Habana and Ben Smith, arguably the most reliable scoring assets of their respective sides, to come up with the goods this time around.
In terms of sheer pace, there’s not many wide men in the world who could hope to keep up with Habana, but Ben Smith has shown that he’s got a wide and highly sought after range of skills in his locker over the last eight weeks.
Smith’s individual success will depend on how much his centres are able to run at Meyer’s back line and cause disruption amongst the defence, so close is the tale of the tape between the two wingers.
5. Willem Alberts vs. Richie McCaw
It was announced earlier this week that Richie McCaw has recovered from a knee injury in time to start in this weekend’s crunch encounter, much to the dismay of the South African hopes.
Arguably the craftiest player ever to hit a ruck, the New Zealand veteran will find Willem Alberts as his most frequent source of direct opposition, but the Springbok could still be distinctly outmatched.
It’s often in games of this importance that McCaw tends to step up in kind, bringing his game to that extra plain, so Alberts will be expected to meet his opposite man off every ruck and maul he might pick from, restricting McCaw from utilising his substantial bag of tricks.