5 Oct 2018

All Blacks and Springboks return to site of magic series decider

4:26 pm on 5 October 2018

Opinion - Twenty-two years ago, the All Blacks had their finest moment ever in their history, on the field of Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. It was a series win in South Africa, which had been 58 long years in the making. It was also the All Blacks' last chance to ever achieve that feat, before professional rugby swallowed up the way test rugby was played and spat back out the repetitive format we have today.

Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi crosses for South Africa's first try

Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi crosses for South Africa's first try Photo: Photosport

Out of all the glorious images of All Black lore, the footage of the final whistle being blown in the 33-26 second test victory has to be the most emotional. The players are almost physically destroyed. Barely any of them can even muster the strength to celebrate. The most telling sight is that of Sean Fitzpatrick pounding his fist repeatedly into the turf, banishing that one Herculean task forever.

Loftus will forever be synonymous with that day for All Black fans, and it's there that the team returns to this weekend. This time, while there's not an actual series on the line, there might as well be given just how good the last two tests have been between the All Blacks and Springboks.

Flashback to this time last year. The All Blacks rolled into Cape Town probably thinking that the Boks were dead and buried for good. The combined scoreline of the previous two tests had been 114-15, with the Boks giving up an even 57 in each.

What followed was proof that South African rugby, despite all its self-inflicted troubles, was far from flatlining. The match ended up being a candidate for one of the best ever, and the All Blacks were extremely lucky to get out with a 25-24 win.

Again the alarm bells were ringing hard for the Springboks when they showed up in Wellington last month for the first leg of this year's Rugby Championship matches. They had lost to Argentina and Australia, and no one was giving them any shot at toppling the All Blacks at home.

Again, they turned up expectations and went one better than the last game. The Boks won 36-34 in another classic, setting up this weekend as a sort of decider in a three-match series. Almost just like the old days, at the park where the All Blacks had their greatest ever series win.

All the talk last week was about how the All Blacks haven't lost two tests in a row since 2011, but here's an even more pertinent stat regarding this clash. The last time the All Blacks lost to the same team twice in a row was in 2009, and it was the Boks (they actually won three against the All Blacks that year).

You have to go all the way back to 2002-03 for a non-South African side to achieve this, when the soon-to-be World Champion English took two tests back to back off the All Blacks.

More evidence as to why this, and this alone, is the greatest rivalry in world rugby.

If there's one thing the All Blacks can probably count on when the whistle blows on Sunday morning, it's that they're going to have the ball a lot. The Boks have operated with less than 30 percent possession in their last two tests - both of which have been wins. Basically, this side is tackling their way to victory and this hasn't been lost on Steve Hansen.

Jack Goodhue and Sonny Bill Williams add some serious size in the midfield, the former getting another chance to impress and the latter looking to continue his role as the key figure in All Black set play moves.

But, of course, all eyes will be on Beauden Barrett's right boot. He was flawless against the Pumas, so does that mean the All Blacks will look to take advantage of the favourable kicking conditions in the Pretoria air? It's in the Boks' best interests to not even make that part of the equation.

Will this one be as good as the last two? If it even comes halfway it'll be epic, a fitting end to this "series".

All Blacks play the Springboks at 4.05am (NZ time) at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria.

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