On Saturday, South Africa will become the latest team to attempt to derail the Rugby World Cup hopes of a New Zealand side that the Springboks coach claims is not just the best around, but the best ever. The All Blacks have sat atop the World Rugby rankings for the past six years and are striving to become the first country in history to retain the Rugby World Cup title. All that is now standing in their way of a place in the final is South Africa, whose coach Heyneke Meyer has just paid them the ultimate compliment.
“I really mean this -- it’s not just talk,” he said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. “This is probably the best team that I believe has ever played the game. Just look at their record in the last four years. Usually after the World Cup there is a decline in performance. They’ve just got better after the previous World Cup, which hasn’t happened before in world rugby. So we as a team know that this must be our best performance ever to beat them.”
New Zealand certainly looked supreme in their quarterfinal. Having cruised through the Pool stage without hitting top gear, the All Blacks tore old foes France apart in a 62-13 win at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Indeed, such has been the level of praise surrounding the performance of his team that coach Steve Hansen has admitted that the biggest concern going into the semifinals has been keeping his players’ feet on the ground. And Hansen, assistant when New Zealand won the trophy in2011, has dismissed his counterpart’s praise as an attempt to take their focus off the match in hand.
“He's a cunning wee devil is Heyneke,” he said on Thursday, reports the New Zealand Herald. "He's been praising us all week and whilst I know he means some of it, at the same time they are getting ready to rip our heads off, and we need to be in that same state.
“If we get caught up in lapping up all the praise we won't be in the right mental state to play. It's a tactic. I don't think he'll be saying that behind closed doors to his team.”
South Africa do have recent experience of toppling the All Blacks. In last year’s Rugby Championship, the Sprinkboks were 27-25 winners in Johannesburg, although that is their only win in the teams’ last seven meetings. Still, South Africa’s most famous victory did also come against their opponents on Saturday. The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked South Africa’s grand reintroduction to the international sporting stage after the end of apartheid. And the team delivered on the field, beating New Zealand 15-12 in the final.
The Springboks won the trophy again in 2007, meaning Saturday’s semifinal will also see two teams vying for a chance to become the first team to win the World Cup on three occasions. New Zealand won the first edition of the competition in 1987.
Unlike New Zealand, South Africa were given a rest test in the quarterfinals. It took a late try from Fourie du Preez to come from behind and beat Wales 23-19 and continue the team’s recovery from a shock opening loss in the tournament to Japan.
Coach Meyer has been able to field an unchanged side for Saturday, while New Zealand make just one alteration, with Joe Moody replacing the injured prop Wyatt Crockett.
Prediction: South Africa have responded solidly from the chastening experience of losing to Japan, but they will have to show far more than the one-dimensional game plan relied upon so far. As well as defending resiliently, more of the inventive skill that provided their winning try against Wales will be required if they are to take down New Zealand. The All Blacks had not hit the heights through their early matches, but if they replicate the performance against Wales it is difficult to see any team stopping them. New Zealand do have an unfortunate history of slipping up just when the praise surrounding them is at its peak, but there has been no sign of that so far in this World Cup. Expect a New Zealand win that, while not nearly as emphatic as the defeat of France, could well be achieved without the need for any late drama.
Start time: Saturday, 11 a.m. EDT