By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Managing risk while experimenting with selections, tactics and combinations has been the major theme in the build-up to Saturday’s Rugby Championship blockbuster clash between South Africa and New Zealand.
Meetings between the two southern hemisphere superpowers are always highly anticipated, no more so than this year when they will also face off in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September.
With an eye on that tournament, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and his Springboks counterpart Rassie Erasmus have both made wholesale changes to teams that produced victories in the opening round of fixtures last week.
The All Blacks beat Argentina 20-16 in Buenos Aires, while the Springboks thrashed Australia 35-17 in Johannesburg and the Wellington clash will go a long way to deciding the winner of this year’s truncated championship.
Several front-line players were rested by both teams last week, with a number of Super Rugby-winning Canterbury Crusaders not travelling to Argentina and a large advance party of Springboks arriving in New Zealand a week early.
Only three starters from each side will be on the field at kickoff on Saturday and while there are experimental designs to both backlines, the packs are arguably the strongest available.
Hansen decided the time was right to give Richie Mo’unga a start at flyhalf with Beauden Barrett shunted back to fullback, a formation which allows the possibility of fielding twin playmakers in Japan.
“We said right from the beginning that the Rugby Championship was about getting us ready to play the Bledisloe (Cup against Australia) and the World Cup,” Hansen told reporters on Thursday.
“That’s no disrespect to the Rugby Championship, it’s just the way it happens to be in World Cup year.
“We’ve got a larger plan, so to speak, and we’re working towards that quietly.
“It means taking a few risks but we’re happy to do that.”
Erasmus also said he was keen to take a few risks, giving speedy openside flanker Kwagga Smith his second test start in the absence of injured captain Siya Kolisi, for example.
He also included among his replacements centre Frans Steyn, the 2007 World Cup winner who was brought back last week after two years in the international wilderness and who Erasmus views as potential flyhalf cover for Japan.
While Erasmus said the key for him was a consistency of performance as the Springboks build towards the World Cup opener against the defending champions, he said it was important not to forget the fierce traditional rivalry between the nations.
The last three matches between the sides have been decided by no more than two points and the Springboks ambushed the All Blacks last year at the same venue with an upset 36-34 victory.
“In the bigger scheme of things, one would always play down this test match and say the World Cup is most important, but it is still a South Africa-New Zealand test match,” he said.
“For us it is important. We think it will be a close game.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)