New Zealand will need to hit the ground running in their bid to win a third successive Rugby World Cup, as they begin their campaign in Pool B against South Africa on Saturday.
While hosts Japan and Russia kick off the 2019 edition of the tournament on Friday, it is tough not to look past that opening fixture and focus instead on the mouthwatering battle between two rugby heavyweights in Yokohama.
Champions in 2011 and 2015, the All Blacks are on a 14-match World Cup winning streak and are favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2.
However, the Springboks held their opponents to a 16-16 draw in Wellington earlier this year on their way to winning the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009, albeit it was a shortened season in a World Cup year.
Still, South Africa are seen by many as the main challengers to the reigning champions, even if All Blacks captain Kieran Read is confident his side know exactly what they will be up against.
“There is nothing special about the way they play. They do what they do well,” he told the media. “They are physical‚ they’re kicking well and they take the points when they’re on offer using their strengths like their maul.
“They also have the ability to play off counter-attack and turn over ball from their backs. We know what is coming our way and that’s great.
“We are in a good place to put a plan out that we think is going to match it.”
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 19, 2019
A defeat would by no means be a hammer blow to either team’s hopes – South Africa lost their first game four years ago to Japan but still made the semi-finals, where they lost 20-18 to New Zealand – but finishing second in the group may, if things run according to form, lead to a tricky quarter-final tie with Ireland.
The Boks will honour Chester Williams this weekend, wearing a jersey with the 1995 World Cup winner’s image embedded into the numbers on the back. Williams died a fortnight ago, at the age of 49.
“Chester didn’t like being the centre of attention,” said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus. “He never bragged about his role or expected anything for it, but he would have enjoyed being part of a Springbok-All Black Test match once more, I think.”
Having called for a more balance approach to officiating at the World Cup, Erasmus has selected the same XV that were on duty for the 41-7 win over Japan in South Africa’s final warm-up fixture, meaning Duane Vermeulen will appear in his 50th Test.
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen, meanwhile, named Richie Mo’unga at fly-half on Thursday with Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown in the centres, meaning Sonny Bill Williams is on a powerful bench.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
New Zealand – Beauden Barrett
So often the first-choice number 10, the brilliant Barrett will line up at full-back against South Africa. His selection there gives New Zealand an extra playmaking option in a back division that includes inexperienced wing duo George Bridge and Sevu Reece.
South Africa – Handre Pollard
Read and the rest of the All Blacks may know what to expect from their rivals, but they still need to find a way to nullify South Africa’s threat. To that extent, fly-half Pollard’s kicking game – both in open play and also off the tee – will be pivotal if the Boks are to prosper.
— Springboks (@Springboks) September 19, 2019
KEY OPTA FACTS
– The All Blacks have won 16 of their last 20 games against the Springboks. Each of the last four meetings have been decided by a margin of no greater than two points.
– New Zealand’s run of 14 successive World Cup wins is the longest such streak by any nation in the tournament’s history.
– South Africa have lost three of their last eight World Cup fixtures, as many as they had lost in their 28 World Cup outings previously.
– New Zealand have scored at least one try in each of their last 26 World Cup outings. The last opponents to prevent them crossing the line? South Africa, back in 1999.
– Barrett beat the most defenders (16) of any player in the 2019 Rugby Championship. His 47 carries for 202 metres gained gave him the second highest totals in those categories.
– South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit made the most tackles (36) of any player in the Rugby Championship, as well as the most clean breaks (5) by any forward in the campaign.
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