All Blacks forwards brace for ultimate test against Springboks

All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree says his forwards have to plan on the real Springboks showing up. HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES

The All Blacks have ratcheted up numerous aspects of their game through an impressive 2021 campaign. Their defence has been impressive, the tempo top-notch, skillwork mostly on point and there is an ominous depth building in this squad of Ian Foster’s that threatens to pay rich dividends down the line.

But nowhere have the newly minted No 1 rugby side in the world made more significant strides during year two of the Foster era than in the forwards. And on Saturday night (7.05pm kickoff NZT), in the incongruous setting of the Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville, that improvement looks like being put to the ultimate test.

It doesn’t get any tougher up front than a clash against the world champion Springboks, and in so many ways Saturday’s 100th test between these two great rugby rivals shapes as one that could define this All Blacks forward pack,or at least provide a gauge on their progress.

The South Africans are hurting after back-to-back defeats against the Wallabies that have burst the large bubble formed by 2019’s World Cup triumph in Japan, and then the 2-1 series victory over the Lions earlier this year. Of course, the Boks sat out 2020 while they hunkered down amid the wreckage of the global pandemic.

The crown sits uneasy on the head of these champions at the moment after a couple of sub-par tests: they were out-fought in their Aussie opener and then straight-up outplayed last Saturday in Brisbane. What was worse, last time out they took a major detour away from the style of rugby that had served them so well over the last few years.

Everyone figures a response is coming from the South Africans. The occasion is too big, the stakes too high and their reputation so in the balance for there not to be. And it will assuredly be led by the Bok forwards who will be looking to squeeze that All Black supply line up front.

All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree, who both played and coached in the republic, knows what’s coming on Saturday night, and says his big men are up for the challenge.

“If you’re watching us play at the moment – high tempo, high skill level, that will all be under pressure because of the Boks’ line-speed,” he said. “There’s only one way to stop line-speed and that’s putting them on the back foot, which is where the forwards come into play.

“So our set piece, how we carry the ball, our cleanout work … we can’t let the Boks get set and come off the line hard. Up front is where it will be won or lost, like most test matches.

“For our forwards this is going to be the toughest battle since I’ve been involved. Everything we do has to have more power, more speed. We’ve got to play at high tempo because that’s our game.”

Asked if his forwards were primed for the challenge, a hint of a smile crossed his lips.

“Most of these boys have been there and done it against the Springboks a few times. They know what’s required. It’s just a case of putting strategies in place at lineout and scrum time, but also we’ll have opportunities where we can show a bit of muscle as well.

”The forwards have got a mighty battle around making sure we look after their driving play, their scrummaging, and their contestable kicks. Their game is designed around putting pressure on, and it’s worked for them the last couple of years.”

The truth is Plumtree will be rapt with his forwards’ response in 2021. He challenged them directly at the start of the season, declaring their 2020 efforts as short of the standard required, and demanding an improvement.

He has got it.

The return of Brodie Retallick has helped shore things up in the second row. Scott Barrett has delivered in Sam Whitelock’s absence. Less experienced types such as Tupou Vaa’i, Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson and Akira Ioane have all made major shifts on the performance graph, while newcomers George Bower, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Ethan Blackadder have made excellent contributions.

Plumtree says they have to figure on a different Boks outfit showing up on Saturday.

“They will be significantly better,” he said. “Their kicking game is a weapon, their forward game, their defensive line-speed. They will be tinkering with parts of their game that are their strengths, and probably won’t be relying too much on their weaknesses.

“We know there’s a lot of heat coming and we’ve got to deal with that in the big parts of their game that led them to success, that they’ve probably been a little disappointed with. All they’ll be focused on will be the two or three things they need to nail to get to us.

“We saw how good they were in the World Cup around those parts of their game and that is what they’ll go back to.”

The All Blacks forwards are ready. It just remains to be seen if they’re up to what’s coming.

 

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