While victory against the Pumas in Argentina is nothing to be frowned upon, the All Blacks realise Saturday’s clash against the Springboks will provide the clearest indication of where they stand heading into the World Cup.
With the tournament curtain raiser in France against the hosts now under two months away, their showdown at Mt Smart will be their only genuine opportunity to lock horns with their old foes at full strength.
A fortnight before the showpiece begins, the teams will square off in Twickenham on August 26 in a World Cup warm-up of sorts, where All Blacks coach Ian Foster or his South African counterpart Jacques Nienaber are likely to play it safe with their selections – for obvious reasons.
Injuries aside, this weekend’s squads strongly resemble the first-choice line-ups for both nations, making this contest much more than essentially a Rugby Championship decider.
The All Blacks and South Africa occupy similar territory in the favouritism ranks for France, both seated below the host nation and Ireland in the current pecking order.
With Eddie Jones’ Wallabies decidedly off the pace – as evidenced by their drubbing at the hands of the second-string Boks at Loftus Versfeld last weekend – Saturday offers the All Blacks a prime, and likely their final, opportunity to make a statement to their rivals in the north.
That fact isn’t lost on Foster, who has challenged his side to take another step forward from their impressive outing against Argentina and lay down a marker for the upcoming Cup.
“It’s test two,” said Foster.
“We answered a few questions (in Argentina). We went into last week with some clear objectives about people and how we wanted to do things, and this is another chance to test that.
“There’s nothing better than playing South Africa. It brings out the best in both teams. We love these games and, yes, we will get a clear mark of where we’re at. But it’s also just another little step on the ladder.”
With the Springboks’ elite cavalry skipping their opener in Pretoria in favour of arriving early in Auckland, Foster and his fellow selectors seized the opportunity for some experimentation in Mendoza – with a sense they were somewhat keeping their powder dry for what awaited them.
They’ve now reverted to a tried and tested formula for their second of their five pre-World Cup tests, fielding an experienced starting XV that bears all of the hallmarks – injured lock Sam Whitelock excepted – of what they believe is their best team.
Among those changes, incumbent Richie Mo’unga has reclaimed the No. 10 jersey at Damian McKenzie’s expense, while test centurion Brodie Retallick brings his veteran presence back to the second-row in place of newcomer Josh Lord.
One of the more intriguing areas of selection is in the back three, where Super Rugby Pacific standouts Will Jordan and Mark Telea – both of whom missed the trip to Argentina with injury – have been named to start alongside Beauden Barrett.
Fresh off his red-hot campaign for the title-winning Crusaders, the chorus for Jordan to be given a chance in his preferred role of fullback at test level has been reaching deafening levels.
But at least for this week, Foster insists the right decision is to slot Jordan on to the flank to reintegrate the speedster to international rugby.
With no specialist first-five back-up named to the All Blacks bench, Foster suggests Jordan will slot into fullback later in Saturday’s test, presuming Barrett will slide into the pivot role when Mo’unga is eventually substituted – a tactic which may become the norm moving forward.
“Will wasn’t with us last week and this week has been light, so we’ve eased him in a bit,” said Foster.
“We had to do quite a bit of work with him yesterday and today, but he’s a quality player.
“We were pleased with Beaudy last week. We enjoyed his control, and because Will wasn’t with us, this is a chance to come in and get a bit of a groove going on the wing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up at fullback, so there’s a chance to play around with how we finish games. That’s also part of the picture we’re looking at.”
The bench also shapes to play another critical hand – one of the few areas where Foster admits he was dissatisfied with last weekend’s performance.
After they’d taken a mammoth 31-0 advantage into halftime against Argentina, the All Blacks’ intensity waned in the second half, particularly once the bench had been cleared.
“We’re still striving for that 80-minute performance. We’re probably at our weakest when we’ve got a big lead. We just get too loose.
“[Last week] we went away from some things that were working for us. We’re talking a lot about that. It’s a concern, but not a major one.
“We’re trying to build the group, so our bench is really clear around how they contribute.”
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