What is going on?
For the first time since 2018, the All Blacks are making the trip to the Lowveld to take on the Springboks at altitude in enemy territory. This weekend's match at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit is the first of a two-match series, kicking off the Rugby Championship campaign.
With so much pressure on the All Blacks lately, there are far easier places to be heading for a two-match series, but if they can perform here, they will silence a lot of their recent critics.
One major point to note is this weekend's test is at 3.05am NZ time on Sunday... bringing in to play that classic conundrum for the sports fan in your life of 'do I get up, or stay up?' on Saturday night. Big questions to be answered* prior to kick-off.
How can I watch?
Coverage of the test begins at 2.30am on Sky Sport 1, with the match kicking off at 3.05am. Live streaming is available on Sky Sport Now. For those who can't get to a TV/don't want to get out of bed at that hour/don't want to stream it in bed at risk of disturbing your significant other's slumber, the Herald will provide live updates at nzherald.co.nz/sport.
How do the teams shape up?
You're here for All Blacks content, so let's start with them. Head coach Ian Foster has stepped up to the plate and swung for the fences with some of his selections. Hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho will make just his second test start (in his 12th appearance) in a move that will provide some ball-carrying punch to the attack and shows faith from Foster that the form No 2 will make the step up (especially given his very limited experience playing top level rugby in South Africa. His addition sees Chiefs teammate Angus Ta'avao get the nod to fill the vacant No 3 jersey, as Foster is looking to lean upon already established connections. Incumbent hooker Codie Taylor has been dropped from the matchday 23 completely, with veteran Dane Coles on the bench.
There is plenty of debate around Foster's selection around the park – Shannon Frizell providing loose forward cover over Dalton Papalii, Beauden Barrett keeping the No 10 jersey over Richie Mo'unga, Will Jordan not being given a run at fullback among the more consistent sticking points I've seen across social platforms and heard in conversation – but at the end of the day, if it all comes together and they get the win, it will be hailed as a masterstroke from Foster.
To the Springboks, who are running out arguably the strongest possible team they can assemble (minus injured superstar wing Cheslin Kolbe). Up front, they are going to bring the physicality to the All Blacks and test them in every contest and collision. You can expect them to challenge the All Blacks at the lineout, too, with Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager at lock, and openside flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit who can also cause some problems there as a handy lineout option. All three of those blokes are 2m or taller; the All Blacks have just one player with similar physical gifts – 2.03m Sam Whitelock.
At halfback Faf de Klerk, they're going to be able to put pressure on through quality box kicking and distribution, while their midfield of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is up there with the best 12-13 combinations in the game, if not the best right now.
The key difference between the two is the All Blacks have named a squad that doesn't hide their desperation to find some answers, while the Springboks have called upon a settled lineup – one that is tailored to a physical contest.
What does history tell us about this fixture?
Let's break this down into a few subcategories.
The last time the All Blacks and the Springboks met: That was on the Gold Coast in October 2021, where the Springboks claimed a 31-29 win courtesy of a late Elton Jantjies penalty - flying through the sticks three minutes after the final hooter had sounded.
The last time they met in South Africa: Was back in 2018 – 40 All Blacks tests ago – and the New Zealanders were on the right side of a 32-30 score line in Pretoria. The All Blacks overcame a 30-13 deficit in the final quarter of that match to stun the hosts.
The last time they met with the All Blacks coming off a home series loss: You have to go way back to 1994 – before rugby had gained status as a professional sport - where the All Blacks dropped two tests at home to France. The All Blacks actually met South Africa in Dunedin the very next week and claimed a 22-14 win.
Record between the two: The All Blacks hold a 60-37 head-to-head record against the Springboks (with four draws). That ledger becomes much more even when you take the sample size down to only games played in South Africa, with the Springboks holding a 25-24 edge on home soil (with one draw).
All Blacks: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Angus Ta'avao, Samisoni Taukei'aho, George Bower.
Reserves: Dane Coles, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa'i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo'unga, Quinn Tupaea.
Springboks: Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane.
Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Salmaan Moerat, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Jaden Hendrikse, Willie le Roux.
Who's going to win?
If you're a diehard All Blacks supporter you may wish to stop reading here, because this test really is the Springboks' to lose. At home, with a strong squad, against an All Blacks team desperate to stave off the critics – it's all set up for the Springboks to put on a show for the hometown faithful.
The punters seem to agree. The Springboks opened up as slim favourites with the TAB, and the money line has moved in the same direction over the last couple of days. The All Blacks opened around the $2 mark and have moved out to $2.20, while the Springboks opened at $1.87 and have closed in to $1.70. The draw is paying $16. This will be the first time in 13 years that the All Blacks have gone into a match as the betting underdogs with the New Zealand bookmaker.
* - Yes, there is always the option of not sacrificing a good night's sleep, avoiding the internet and watching a reply at a much more reasonable time on Sunday morning. But where's the fun in that?