Without a doubt, the standout match of the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup comes this Saturday in Yokohama, as the All Blacks begin their defence of the title won in 2011 and 2015. Against South Africa, who won the 2007 vintage of the competition, the holders are not going to have things their own way, and there is every chance that the winner of this match will be installed as the favourites to win the whole thing – a tag which, at the moment, very much belongs to the men in black.
The last time New Zealand lost so much as a match in the World Cup came back in 2007 when they lost a quarter-final clash against France. Since then they have searched for and ruthlessly shut down anything that could have been perceived as a weakness in their game, and they’re not going to give up that unblemished run without a fight. Fortunately, under Rassie Erasmus the Springboks are more than happy to offer up a battle: physically, tactically and mentally, this is a South African side in the mould of the winners of twelve years ago, and in kinetic flanker Siya Kolisi they have a captain that embodies the squad’s clever, all-action approach.
A seriously close contest in prospect
The last three games between these sides have been thrillers, with South Africa winning the first, New Zealand the second, and the most recent meeting this past summer ending in a draw. In the two matches that had a winner, the final margin was just two points each time – so on each occasion, just a single penalty goal could have changed the outcome of the match. This is a game in which the various goalkickers will have a major influence – and with Beauden Barrett on the All Blacks’ side and Handre Pollard lining up for the Boks, both teams are well served in that regard.
The closeness of all the recent clashes between these giants of the game also means we’ve got a tough one to call here. Both sides are more than capable of beating the other, and when they played less than two months ago they could not be separated. At 888 you can get odds of 5/4 on the game ending with a margin of less than seven either way, and even if there is a clearer winner than usual this afternoon there’s every chance they’ll still be separated by less than a converted try. Both South Africa and New Zealand are beatable, but no-one blows either side out.
Last score wins?
In Rugby Union, beating the elite sides is about taking any chance that arises to put points on the board, and reacting quickly when you concede. That’s precisely why matches between these sides have been so close recently; the rankings may say that Ireland are the best team in the world, but if you were to ask a hundred fans who’s really the team to watch in this tournament, the majority would say one of these two. It’s a matter of individual and team pride that these sides don’t let themselves get far behind, and that means their matches can turn on a sixpence.
Last September, as time ticked down on a match between these sides at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, South Africa held a 36-34 lead. A single drop goal would have won the match for New Zealand, but as chances presented themselves, it became clear that they were uninterested in an attempt. It turned out there was something Beauden Barrett couldn’t do, and in the matches they have played since it’s been clear that drop goals are a part of the game he has been working on. The single, opportunistic kick for three points can turn a contest – all the more so in matches as close as these sides play – and with Ladbrokes offering 3/1 that one will be landed today, you’d have to fancy those odds.
There has to be a winner … doesn’t there?
A draw would be far from the end of the world for these sides. Honour would be maintained within a competition in which they could end up meeting again in the final. The other teams in their group are Italy, Canada and Namibia (the latter two being the 19th- and 20th- ranked teams in a 20-team competition). Whatever happens here, these sides are going to take the top two spots and progress to the knockout stages – so maybe they’re not going to give it the full crack? If it’s 27-27 with two minutes to go, no-one’s going to risk losing by trying too hard to win? Right?
While there is some logic to that theory, the truth is that there is enough of a rivalry between these teams to ensure that both will be going all-out to win here. They certainly could meet in the final in five weeks’ time, and if that happens, both teams will want to be the one looking down the line at their opponents with the confidence that comes from having handed out a beating in this game. So we have to make a call here; it’s a matter of professional pride for predictors. And we’re going to say… South Africa are 7/4 with Paddy Power to win this match. If we were going to call it either way, we’d back them. They’re a team on the rise, while a team that has won this title twice in a row simply cannot be as hungry. The Springboks, by a narrow margin.
Bets of the Day
No side to win by 7+ (888, 5/4); A drop goal scored in the game (Ladbrokes, 3/1); South Africa to win (Paddy Power, 7/4)