Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Breaking the Boks apart

The All Blacks head to South Africa tomorrow to play what willmost likely be their toughest test of the year. Gregor Paul looks at where it will be won and lost.

Kieran Read celebrates scoring a try at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kieran Read celebrates scoring a try at Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Kicking

In essence, this is where the test will be won: using the boot to build pressure and aerial skills to relieve it will be all important.

And forget perception. The All Blacks have the reputation for a ball in-hand team, yet it is the quality of their kick-and-chase game that the Boks fear most. Who would have thought it - that the biggest point of difference between the two sides is the quality of their kicking games?

At Eden Park the All Blacks kicked 32 times compared with the Boks' 26.

It wasn't the quantity that told, however, it was the quality.The South Africans were poor when the kicks were contested and lack confidence counter-attacking fromdeep.The All Blacks are the better side at building pressure through their kick-chase and relieving it through their catchkick-return-counter-attack.

Expect Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith to kick almost all possession inside their own half and Israel Dagg to predominantly kick. The total number of kicks could exceed 100 and the core roles of Ben Smith and Julian Savea will be to hound and harry the South African back three - challenge them in the air and close them down when the All Blacks kick long.

Defence

The All Blacks made 105 tackles at Eden Park and missed eight. The Boks made 97 but missed 18. But that's only half the story. How easily did Kieran Read run through Jannie du Plessis - not once, but twice?

The Boks are bigger and heavier but size isn't everything. Technically they were poor at times - players coming in too high, rolling back on their heels at the point of contact.

The numerical imbalance made it easy to believe the All Blacks lived off South Africa's structural deficiencies caused by being a man down, but it was technical faults in basic tackling that crippled the Boks.

Some of the All Black tackling was explosive enough to force individual Springboks into spilling the ball.

The All Blacks also have a better scrambling defence - even when their line is breached, they are the world's best at plugging holes and regrouping.

Attack

The Springboks cause problems with ball in hand - but it is the same problem every time. It is their preference to look for contact rather than to attack the space which saw them only beat the defender eight times at Eden Park compared with the All Blacks' 18. What the Boks do is sap the energy of the defence by pounding into contact at speed. It's how they build momentum - they thunder in, recycle, thunder in - all the time hoping it takes that little bit longer for the ball carrier to be dragged down. It comes in waves, and the size and power of the athletes makes it effective but it also makes them predictable, especially when Morne Steyn sits half a metre too deep to give the defensive line the ability to swarm the midfield and close things down.

If the All Blacks trust their basic techniques to bury the ball-carrier early, theywon't be overly stretched.

In the art of manipulating a defence through angles of movement, pace, timing and sleight of hand, the All Blacks hold a clear advantage.

They have players with better footwork and agility to find space and offload. In Auckland, the All Black ball-carriers were more dynamic in the carry and better at beating defenders one-on-one.

Setpiece

No matter how much both sides talk of the game being won and lost up front, it won't really be true. The All Blacks will need to be competitive, physical in the extreme and capable of holding the scrum steady and winning their own lineout ball off the top as well as at the front.

Based on the expected lineups and what was seen in Auckland, the two sides look about equal in both areas. The Boks have more options at the lineout probably with the greater size of their loose trio and they enjoyed strong scrums when Bismarck du Plessis was on the field. It's a stretch to see them having enough dominance at either facet to build a victory on those pillars alone.

Breakdown

This is the area where New Zealand have to be most wary. The Boks are clever and strong over the ball - using their power and bulk to take commanding positions. Du Plessis was exemplary in Auckland and Francois Louw and Willem Alberts were a handful which is why South Africa took eight breakdown turnovers compared with New Zealand's seven. The All Blacks need to be quicker and more ruthless in the cleanout so Africans are not left on their feet with rights to the ball. The difference at Ellis Park is going to be the likely presence of Richie McCaw.

As well as Sam Cane played in the last encounter, McCaw is McCaw: so experienced, so good and that little bit bigger and stronger with such presence and clarity of mind.

If the skipper can play, the contest should just about be even with perhaps the All Blacks taking a slight advantage later in the piece.

Fitness

This is the final game of the Rugby Championship-the sixth big test in eight weeks. Plus there's the travel.

Legs and lungs will be hurting and it won't be made any easier by Ellis Park's altitude.

It's interesting to note the All Blacks surged past the Boks in the second half last year when that game was also the sixth test of the campaign. In 2010, under the old Tri Nations, the All Blacks again played the Boks as the sixth and final test and scored two tries in the last four minutes to win.

Fitness will matter and therefore, so will the bench. Arguably the All Blacks have the edge in their conditioning.

They always do-their forwards especially. The New Zealand pack is full of natural athletes. Liam Messam, McCaw and Read would outlast and outrun most other loose trios. The respective benches look similar - a mix of developing and developed talent with neither side really having a killer weapon.

- Herald on Sunday

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