Wellington: Rival captains Kieran Read and Duane Vermeulen may be mates off the field but they are set for a “massive” confrontation when two of rugby’s fiercest rivals clash in Wellington today.
It will be “guns blazing”, Vermeulen warned as the battle of the loose forwards, led by the two bruising back rowers, took centre stage ahead of a match both sides see as a trial for players to force their way into World Cup contention.
Read and Vermeulen both used the word “massive” to describe the historic All Blacks-Springbok rivalry.
“It epitomises what they’re about and their physical approach and never giving up attitude. It’s the same things we do as well,” Read said.
Much had been made of the All Blacks’ bold decision to start both their two world-class fly-halves – with Beauden Barrett at 15 and Richie Mo’unga wearing 10 – in their search for winning combinations going into the World Cup in September.
But when experimenting with the crucial loose forward trio, coach Steve Hansen has sacrificed experience, with neither Sam Cane nor Ardie Savea required to suit up.
Starting flankers Shannon Frizell and Matt Todd with Vaea Fifita and Dalton Papalii on the bench have a combined total of 33 Tests experience, and the Springbok showdown will give Hansen the opportunity to see how they handle the pressure.
The Springboks have gone for form with the vastly experienced Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit along with Kwagga Smith, who was arguably the most effective flanker in Super Rugby this year, while Francois Louw is in the reserves.
Todd was frank in his assessment of how vital the loose forward clash will be.
“Whoever wins or controls that area will go a long way to having a good night,” he said, while expressing respect for former South African sevens star Smith.
“With that speed he can attack like a back and has the full range of skills. He’s not the biggest man but he punches above his weight as well. He has that all-round game that can challenge you in so many different areas.”
The forward selection is a gamble by Hansen who has no specialist lock cover with Fifita, who struggled against Argentina last week, likely to cover the middle row if required.
Only three players remain in the starting line ups for both sides after their first round Rugby Championship outings last week when the All Blacks beat Argentina and South Africa downed Australia.
With World Cup positions at stake, Vermeulen said his friendship with Read, with whom he enjoyed “a beer or two” after the Crusaders-Bulls Super Rugby clash two months ago, will be blotted out.
“There’s a special relationship on and off the field, but on the field we’re not going to hold back. We’re going to go out guns blazing, but I’ve a lot of respect for him as a player and as a captain,” Vermeulen said.
Since the All Blacks 57-0 triumph in 2017, the last three matches contests have been decided by two points or less with the Springboks winning 36-34 in Wellington last year.
While looking ahead to the World Cup, the All Blacks will also be looking to avenge that defeat on home soil.
“The guys who played that game will be feeling it again. It’s nice to have in the back of your mind,” Read said.
The winner will take a psychological edge into the World Cup where they meet again in the first round with the loser on course for a probable quarter-final date with an in-form Ireland.