Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Springboks still the team to beat

Familiarity has not bred contempt and 20 years since they were welcomed back from isolation, the Springboks remain the side the All Blacks view as their fiercest rival.

The tests against Australia and Argentina can't quite be described as a 'Phoney War', but the All Blacks are unequivocal that the arrival of South Africa creates an altogether different set of emotions within their camp.

No other side commands the respect of the All Blacks the way the Springboks do. There is a long history between these two, a history that is riddled with politics, horrific home-town referees, heroes, villains, thugs, triumphs and disasters. It is a history that even the youngest members of the All Black side feel part of, having been through what is an effective Kiwi rite of passage - being hauled out of bed by dad in the middle of the night to endure the agony and ecstasy of an All Black test in South Africa.

"It's my first run against the Boks and I am pretty excited," said first-five Aaron Cruden. "I remember growing up as a kid and especially when the games were in South Africa, waking up in the early morning, with a cup of Milo and my old man and brothers watching the footy.

"I knew there and then I wanted to be part of something like that and I get my opportunity to be part of that. We never know what to expect from the Africans and they are probably up against a wall a little bit. And a desperate Springboks are a dangerous Springboks so that is the attitude we have."

Statistics support the sentiment - the All Blacks have won 80 per cent of their tests since South Africa were re-introduced to global rugby in 1992 following the collapse of apartheid. They have won 68 per cent of their tests against the Boks in the same period and are conscious that South Africa are the last side to beat them in New Zealand.

So while the All Blacks are being driven by their desire to deliver a much improved performance, the intensity of the rivalry and an appreciation of its meaning will also be in the preparation mix.

"I think New Zealand's history with the Springboks is such that they will always be the traditional foe," coach Steve Hansen said. "Australia is more like a big brother and you always want to beat your bigger brother, but playing South Africa is the ultimate and has been all my life and still is.

"This week is all about what we are going to be allowed to do against the Boks. And what we need to do to be able to stop them doing what they want to do. They are a big side, they are physical and we have to match that physicality and passion and desperation they have got.

"They have not a had great start to the championship so if we come in half-cocked, we could find ourselves on the back-foot."

- Herald on Sunday

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