New Zealand’s game with South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday may have little influence on the progression of the heavyweight pair to the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup, but is a chance for both to lay down a major marker in Japan.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has dismissed the idea that his side are more vulnerable than the winning teams of 2011 and 2015, while the Springboks will be eager to prove their title credentials to those that doubt their ability to put together a consist run of wins over top nations.
It is the start of a seven-match slog to the final on Nov. 2, and while Hansen will not read too much into a defeat for either side, he knows it would raise more questions and doubts about his team.
“If South Africa or ourselves get beaten, you can either roll over and say, ‘We can’t win it (the trophy), or you say, we have to win all our (six remaining) games from here on in. It’s a long tournament, a marathon and not a sprint,” he said.
“You get two types, I reckon,” he added. “You get those who definitely don’t want us to win, because it’s not in their interests for us to win. Then you get the other group who desperately want us to win and they’re all nervous because we haven’t played any games.
“As soon as we get this tournament under way we’ll get rid of all that peripheral noise out there, and it’s pretty meaningless noise too, people having opinions who have no idea of what’s actually happening in some of these teams.”
Hansen provided few selection surprises, with Richie Mo’unga retaining the number 10 jersey and Ardie Savea moving to across the scrum to blindside flank.
The loss of lock Brodie Retallick to injury is a blow, but that has been countered by the return to fitness of inside centre Ryan Crotty, who is preferred to Sonny Bill Williams.
South Africa are unbeaten in 2019 and claimed the Rugby Championship title for the first time in a decade, in part thanks to a 16-16 draw with the All Blacks in Wellington in July.
That is part of a tight recent run between the sides that has seen just two points separating them on aggregate in their last four meetings.