The All Black forward pack almost picks itself and the only real questions are over Loosehead Prop. Wyatt Crockett is the nominal starter but has picked up an injury. Expect to see Ben Franks come in for him if Crockett can’t recover from his injury. The dilemma here is who should start and who can provide impact off the bench for the last 20 minutes. They are likely to carry on with Crockett from the start but I think they should stick with the hot hand and go with Moody – the key here is that it looks like SA will start with Malherbe and have Jannie du Plessis on the bench. Crockett would be useful to exploit JdP’s scrummaging and lack of impact of the bench (the same applies to Ben Franks, who can be a bit of a disciplinary liability).
The rest of the forward pack is pretty much set in stone and the other replacements will almost certainly be Mealamu, Faumuina, Cane and Vito. It’ll be interesting to see when they bring the last two on and who they will come on for. The flow of the game will have a big impact but at the moment the most likely subs look like Vito for Whitelock and Cane for Kaino, with McCaw going to 6 as the game breaks up. With the extra punch they will give at the breakdown and in the loose, if the All Blacks are winning by 5+ when these two come on, you can stick a fork in it because the game will be done.
The starting backline is unlikely to change but there is a problem with that. Conrad Smith is an all-time great but over the last year or so, he has shown a weakness against extreme speed (the Johnny May and Jesse Kriel tries). The All Blacks can’t rely on Meyer shooting himself in the foot as Jan De Villiers is unavailable for selection and might have to make a big call of their own but it’s unlikely in that they’d drop Conrad Smith at this stage. Milner-Skudder is a great talent but has had to leave a few games early in this tournament due to injury and might not recover in time for the game. If he doesn’t, Naholo is the obvious choice to come in and he would be a massive danger to SA – they won’t have anyone who can match his explosive pace (not even Habana), – Naholo is a better defender than NMS as well as being a real nuisance over the ball. Naholo has had a great year and is a better player than he has shown so far this tournament but the All Blacks might be better off starting Ben Smith on the right wing with Beauden Barrett at full back. There have been whispers that one of the things the ABs have been holding back is playing two fly halves, letting them bring more decoys and generally play even faster. This selection would let them bring that from the start. Barrett has great pace, is good under the high ball, has a better boot than Ben Smith, and gives the ABs something that South Africa haven’t been able to handle whenever Barrett has played them.
The backline subs are also unlikely to change but if they do go with Barrett from the start, it would leave a spot open to cover the outside backs with three different options to go with. Slade would be the conservative pick, covering 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15 but doesn’t really add anything that would scare SA. As Barrett covers 10 and Smith covers 15, the last spot would be a shootout between Fekitoa and Naholo. Fekitoa can play both centre positions as well as the wing while Naholo only gives wing cover – the X factor here is that Fekitoa played SA’s centre combination recently and looked very good against them. He’s explosive in attack and defence and gives the All Blacks a real match winner on the bench (as well as a natural replacement for Conrad Smith if he’s finding it difficult against Kriel).
The ABs will be widely expected to play an all court game but an interesting wrinkle they could bring is in the kicking game. We saw in the SA-Wales match that Pollard hasn’t been kicking well and Willie Le Roux, for the lack of a better word, looked almost scared when faced with a hard chase under the high ball. The ABs kick more than most teams, and look to kick with the aim of receiving a kick back in a better position to counter attack from. They also have a lot of kicking options in the backline – the three Smiths, Carter and Nonu (as well as Barrett) all kick very well – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they put up a few high bombs and really pressure Le Roux, who is a barely passable defender at the best of times.
Somewhat strangely, in the Rugby Championship, they had a lot of success using Dane Coles as a runner off the shoulder of the first/second receiver:
Coles has got the pace and running lines to go all the way if he gets a pop pass in that situation. I expect to see that play again, with the potential of luring the defence in tight and a longer pass out behind Coles into space out wide.
If Milner-Skudder starts, you’re likely to see several instances of the ABs leaving Coles, Read or Conrad Smith out on the right wing with Milner-Skudder coming in off his wing in search of a mismatch. His ability to beat the first tackler and offload the ball could be crucial to break the line and put his teammates into the space that they’re so often deadly from. From a SA perspective, it’s vital that Lood de Jager is fit. If not, Meyer will almost certainly pick Victor Matfield. These days, Matfield pretty much jogs from lineout to lineout and if he plays, the ABs will look to break through outside him. In the Rugby Championship:
a couple of quick passes have Lood de Jager scrambling across to cover his. Nonu sees this and draws his man up and passes inside to Sopoaga who had come up from behind the line into the gap outside de Jager. Carter isn’t as quick as he used to be but he’s Usain Bolt compared to Matfield and with the quality of support lines that the ABs run, they’ll undoubtedly have success running this if Matfield plays.
Against the ABs, SA often play a blitz defence with one player making a Jonathan Davies style charge out of the line to try and stymie the ball carrier behind the gainline. It’s been a relatively successful approach so far but is vulnerable to grubbers in behind the rushing defender from Carter or Nonu. Personally, I’d like to see them chip the ball in behind the blitz. Le Roux is usually good at mopping the loose ball in space but completely changes when he can see incoming traffic (as shown at the weekend) and tends to hesitate when he needs to come forward to the ball. It’s a high risk strategy (your chaser could knock on or SA could take the high ball) but it’s a very high reward strategy too.
The most crucial part of the game though, is most likely to be the breakdown. SA has a backrow, as well as Bismarck du Plessis, that are strong over the ball although they lack the Brussow type fetcher that gives the ABs more problems. Because of that, I think SA won’t be particularly fast to the breakdown but will come in numbers when the forwards are in close. Aaron Smith is phenomenal in getting to the breakdown often before his forwards do (Justin Marshall does a great job of explaining why he gets there so fast here, so the ABs can limit SA’s effectiveness at the breakdown by making sure their initial clearout is accurate. Moving the ball wide quickly and tiring the SA pack by making them chase the ball and turning them with kicks will help them as well.
Defensively, the AB pack needs to slow the ball down to strangle Pollard’s running game. Pollard tends to kick well (from hand and tee) if he feels his running game is going well and has struggled when slow ball dictates he has to decide between staying flat or dropping deeper. To mitigate this, SA have used Schalk Burger(!!!!!!) as a first receiver at times, using him to carry into contact or pass and clear the ensuing breakdown for quicker ball. The ABs might benefit from their tight forwards making sure that Burger has to come to the ruck, removing that option from SA or by bringing Savea off his wing to tackle Burger, allowing Nonu to drift onto Pollard.
Overall, scoreboard pressure will be important in this. In recent times, SA have tried to get out to a lead and the ABs have had to reel them back in (which they’ve done with remarkable success) once the replacements have come on. If the ABs can get out to a lead early on, the pressure will be on SA to cut loose, playing a more expansive game (which they actually do quite well – see Ellis Park 2013 vs NZ), playing right into the AB’s strengths and I just can’t see them coming back if this happens.
Whether he starts or comes on for the last 25 minutes, the sight of the green jersey always seems to bring out the best in Barrett. Expect his pace and playmaking ability to give SA a lot of trouble.
There aren’t many players that could bring something that the other team hasn’t seen before and weirdly, it’s one of the highest profile rugby players in the world that can. I can’t remember for certain but as far as I can remember, SBW has never played against South Africa (definitely hasn’t in the last few years) and while what he brings is no secret, it raises a very different challenge to Nonu at 12. He has a knack of shifting his feet slightly as he goes into contact which lets him find the weak shoulder of the tackler and extend his arms for the offload. With Le Roux’s shaky cover defence and the AB support lines, SBW could be a match winner if the game is tight.
So far, Garces has shown that he wants tacklers to roll away quickly (compared to others) and this might benefit the ABs in creating quicker ball from the rucks. Equally, they’ll have to make sure that they’re disciplined when SA have the ball to stop giving Pollard penalties that will help the Springboks get out to a lead.