The old foes share five of the eight World Cups and rugby's greatest rivalry. Their previous four World Cup matchups were in playoffs. Their first in a pool has had rugby buzzing since the draw 2 ½ years ago.
Not since 1991 has New Zealand headed to a pool game with this much doubt about the result. That occasion was against England at Twickenham. England was the Five Nations Grand Slam champion, a team on the rise. New Zealand was on the wane, but it had enough and Michael Jones to win 18-12.
That these All Blacks can't be certain of victory ought to worry the Springboks. Used to being outright favorites, the All Blacks especially love it when the odds are evened out. When they must reassert themselves and their brand. Nobody reasserts like the All Blacks, who have lost consecutive matches only once in 10 years.
They aren't coming off a loss, but neither do they go into this World Cup as strident as they did four years ago. They aren't No. 1 — although to Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus they are — and they aren't the champion of the southern hemisphere. Their aura is diminished, and the resurgent Springboks have contributed.
Their last four matchups have had margins of 1, 2, 2 and 0 points, which was the 16-16 draw in July. Since he took over as coach only last year, Erasmus has revived the Boks by restoring their self-belief and enhancing their strengths. They've been stifling the All Blacks with an accurate kick-chase game and in-your-face defense.
Counterpart Steve Hansen doesn't expect those tactics to change from the same Boks side which routed Japan 41-7 this month. "They like to kick a fair bit," the New Zealand coach says. "Like to go to the 20 and the halfback kicks or they play down the short side. If they can't get to the 20 and get stuck in the middle, then the halfback will kick to the corner or play to the 20 again. It's easy to tell what they do, it's a little harder to stop it."
But it's not in the All Blacks' attacking nature to be stifled for long. They are persisting with dual playmakers Richie Mo'unga at flyhalf and usual flyhalf Beauden Barrett at fullback for the fourth time this year.
"Someone's going to crack that defensive nut, because history tells us it will happen," Hansen says. "And when it does, then it will open up the floodgates for the attacking game to come strong again. Then everyone will be saying there's a bias towards attacking, and they'll go away and work harder on what they're going to do on defense."
Erasmus has sought an extra edge this week by he and his staff publicly appealing to French referee Jerome Garces to not give the All Blacks the 50-50 calls he believes they are given unfairly, based on reputation.
Asked if he thought Garces could disregard those claims, Hansen says, "You hope so." "Rassie is a great coach, but I don't agree with what he's doing," Hansen says. "He's trying to put pressure on the referee externally. They're under enough pressure already. It doesn't matter who is your ref, a coach and team can always find things after the game that they didn't do, and get emotional about them picking on you and not on the opposition. We've done it ourselves. But at the end of the day they go out there to do their very best and, yes, they don't get it right all the time, we've suffered from that just like other teams. It's a big game, we just need the referee to get on with it."
Defeat on Saturday won't be fatal for either side. It won't derail each other's plans, not in a pool with Italy, Canada and Namibia. But defeat brings criticism and second guessing. Hansen says if the defeat is heavy, hysteria will ensue, justifiably.
"If you lose, you always lose a bit of confidence, you have to rebuild a little bit," Erasmus says. "It's always a tough week. You don't want to lose your opening game." The last time the Springboks lost their opening game, it was turned into a movie. "The Brighton Miracle" based on South Africa's shocking upset to Japan in the 2015 World Cup premiered in Tokyo last week. Defeat won't be such a shock this time, but it's still to be avoided.
Erasmus says, "We have a very realistic chance." That's enough bait for the All Blacks.
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel.
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