Hosts Japan may be kicking off the Rugby World Cup against unlikely qualifiers Russia, but its fair to say that a lot of people’s attention will be drawn to the swathe of games that follow over the course of the opening weekend. None more so than the match-up, that for many is the biggest rivalry in World Rugby, as defending Champions New Zealand line-up opposite South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday. This will be the 99th time the two great Rugby nations have met (only the 4th on neutral territory) and the odds are in favour of there being a hundredth before the tournament closes on November the 2nd. Let’s put that to one side for the time being, there is plenty of Rugby to be played between now and the final; what can we expect as two of the favourites clash so early on in the competition?
In international Rugby, especially in the build up to a World Cup, New Zealand are often treated as a benchmark and how other teams perform against the All Blacks really puts their credentials into focus. South Africa certainly won’t fear New Zealand, as many do, and will know what they have to topple them – a win and a draw in their last three games and an aggregate score over the last 4 games (stretching back 2 years) of 107-106 in New Zealand’s favour proves how closely matched these two teams are. The All Blacks will retort that by pointing out that they have won 16 of the last 20 fixtures against the Spring Boks and whilst they may be not be firing on all cylinders they are hardened in a culture of expectancy like no other nation. For many pundits, these teams are on opposite sides of the slope to the summit, but before anyone attempts the wrestle New Zealand’s crown there will be some epic encounters and this is one of them. Let’s not forget that New Zealand have won 14 consecutive RWC matches – a run that stretches back to that fateful night against France in Cardiff 12 years ago and they will be desperate to further their legend.
The way that the respective teams’ match schedule has fallen means that we will get to see, what are at this stage, the strongest possible line-ups. South Africa coach, Rassie Erasmus, has called his team selection their “best side”. His counterpart, Steve Hansen, believes that his 23 (Brodie Retallick aside) are the best group for this opposition, whom they undoubtedly view as their biggest rivals. Note the subtle differences in Hanson’s descriptions there, the headlines have unsurprisingly been stolen by the selection of Richie Mo’unga at fly-half, forcing former World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett to full back. It remains to be seen how long this experimentation will go on, this may be the best 23 but will the numbers on the back change as we mover forward? Their respective performances on Saturday may go a long way to shape that.
In reality, both teams are extremely likely to qualify for the quarter finals and although upsets do happen (just ask South Africa about their trip to Brighton); Italy, Canada and Namibia shouldn’t cause too many headaches. So, to the victor on Saturday – bragging rights, momentum and the opportunity to avoid a likely clash with the dangerous Ireland in the quarters. More importantly however, win or lose, this provides the opportunity to lay down a marker and set the standard. The rest of the World will be looking on and, of this is to be the most competitive Rugby World Cup yet, we should have a good idea of what’s required by lunchtime on Saturday.
Written by James Jones