Richie McCaw's leadership crucial for All Blacks
October 3, 2013
South Africa are taking motivation wherever they can © Getty Images
Eleven New Zealand tour parties have made the trek to Ellis Park in Johannesburg since it opened in 1928; only three have tasted victory. Tana Umaga led the last expedition to the stronghold, in 2004, and memories of that 40-26 defeat, and a hat-trick by his opposite, Marius Joubert, are tough to handle even nine years later.
Steve Hansen's squad on Saturday must overcome that poor record in The Rugby Championship decider against a Springboks outfit still hurting from the treatment it received at Eden Park, with Bismark du Plessis' controversial red card understood to be a major source of motivation; it won't come as a surprise if the Springboks target Liam Messam, who was abused on social media after his alleged "dive" led to du Plessiss' second yellow card and an automatic red. Flip van der Merwe's suspension after his yellow card against Australia in Cape Town subsequently is unlikely to bring back the "justice" armbands seen in the 2009 British & Irish Lions series finale, but it adds to the drama.
Those elements should make the infamous drive to the stadium, through hoards of fans who harass the team bus, even more unsettling, but Umaga says it's what lies behind the stadium gates that will separate the men from the boys.
"You get it as soon as you drive in and when you run out there it's like four walls are slamming you full of screaming Springbok supporters," Umaga says. "They're very close to you as well. Some of our grounds [in New Zealand] have spaces between the field and the grandstand; over there they're right up next to you and if you're on the reserves bench it's even worse. There's a lot of animosity towards the players and it won't be any easier for the All Blacks after what happened to Bismark du Plessis. There's still a bit of feeling with that."
Hansen's silent prayers for Richie McCaw, who has not played a test at Ellis Park, have been answered. His return from a knee injury is key to their success, and his leadership will be essential in what is sure to be a brutal contest packed with emotion.
South Africa have a major advantage in the scrum: tight-head Owen Franks, who has been replaced by Charlie Faumuina, was fed to Tendai Mtawarira in Auckland, and the struggles continued in Argentina. If the home side asserts dominance early, and putd the All Blacks under pressure, then 62,000 of the most passionate fans in rugby will make it extremely difficult to swing the momentum.
"The crowd really lifts the Springboks if they do get in front," Umaga says. "The All Blacks have to be on top of their game and they can't have any inconsistencies. Because as soon as they have one and make one error, they'll swoop on it. I'd say they'll be worked up into a frenzy by the time they get to the park, just by those around them and by the way Heyneke Meyer has been going."
Craig Dowd, a 60-Test veteran, was part of the last All Blacks side to conquer Ellis Park. John Hart and Sean Fitzpatrick commanded over a thrilling 35-32 win in 1997, and Dowd says the players can expect a vastly improved South African effort.
"You wondered whether they had put up bonus money for the Springboks to perform there," Dowd says. "They actually played better at Ellis Park, for whatever reason, than anywhere else. "The World Cup final in 1995 was the hardest game I ever played against South Africa. They grow an arm and a leg at that Stadium. It's like us at Eden Park. To win a Test match at Ellis Park is massive."
Immense pressure is set to be placed on the likes of Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith, whose rushed pass in the face of oncoming defenders led to Dan Carter's demise with a shoulder injury. History is filled with examples of the questionable tactic used to "take out" the All Blacks' key men. Carter and McCaw have been on the receiving end more than once, while Byron Kelleher probably doesn't remember Victor Matfield's forearm that rendered him unconscious in 2005.
"That's just something the All Blacks will expect, they know what it's going to be like when they get there," Umaga says. "But I'm sure Steve Hansen and Ian Foster have found ways to deal with that. We're an experienced bunch now so I'd say that wouldn't affect them too much."
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