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All Blacks v Springboks preview: A clash of styles and bodies

Brodie Retallick predicts another fiery encounter between the All Blacks and the Springboks in Wellington.
The Springboks last faced the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in 2019. Photo: Photosport

Opinion - It's been four years since the Springboks have run out to play the All Blacks in New Zealand. To put it in perspective, the last time they played here the All Blacks were still world champions. So, it's been a while and things have changed in both of the two nations that make up the most important rivalry in test rugby - but not just on the field.

It's reflected in the team selections for this weekend's test at Go Media Mt Smart Stadium. The Boks named their side early in the week, as is their tradition, with the most chat around the bench rather than the starting side.

It is certainly a formidable group. The ability to bring Malcolm Marx, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermuelen into the game has had Bok fans salivating on social media, but it is worth remembering that basing a game plan entirely around pre-planned substitutions backfired badly on them last year at Ellis Park in the test that saved Ian Foster's job.

Springoks celebrate Pieter Steph du Toit's try against Australia.
The Springboks celebrate Pieter Steph du Toit's try against the Wallabies. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Meanwhile, the All Blacks have gone for Richie Mo'unga back at first five and Will Jordan returning on the wing. It's an interesting one as Damian McKenzie certainly looked good in the 10 jersey last weekend, so just who is the frontrunner might not be known until the end of The Rugby Championship it seems.

Richie Mo’unga of New Zealand during the test against Springboks 2022.
Richie Mo'unga is back at first five. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The only curious selection is Caleb Clarke on the bench. This will be the first time since his debut that Clarke is wearing a high jersey number, given his low utility value it puts a lot of pressure on Braydon Ennor if the injuries start to mount up. Especially since McKenzie isn't even in the match day squad at all.

This is shaping up as the most important test before the World Cup for both sides. They will meet again in London a fortnight before the tournament begins, but it will be a one-off and the likelihood of key players being rested is high. While the result may well decide The Rugby Championship, it also will also vindicate the way whoever wins is running their elite programmes.

Caleb Clarke at All Blacks training.
Caleb Clarke. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The All Blacks are doing the things they always have. Foster is the coach and in complete charge of the team, with the ability to dictate to Super Rugby teams how many minutes his players have on the field. Only players based in New Zealand and contracted to NZR are eligible for the All Blacks, which allows that level of micromanagement.

Meanwhile, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is working alongside or arguably under the watchful eye of Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus. The outspoken former Springbok flanker has challenged the way that team staff have conducted themselves, using his arm's length reach from being an actual coach to mostly comment on refereeing. It stoked a serious fire of identity within Springbok fans, who see Erasmus as a conduit to expressing frustration at perceived unfairness - something that doesn't exactly stack up given that they are current world champions.

South Africa Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

But the major departure from the way the All Blacks are operating is the fact that the Springboks have opened their doors to eligibility almost completely. Around half of their team play for overseas clubs, provinces and Japanese company teams, something that NZR has been at pains to avoid.

While there are a bunch of variables as to why South African players move offshore (mostly financial), the Springboks are obviously making it work for them. They assembled their side from around the world and handily beat the Wallabies last weekend and feel like they are building nicely as they attempt to defend their World Cup title.

Would a Springbok win mean NZR would radically change their thinking on coaching structure and eligibility? Or even the new incoming regime about how to run a subs bench? Probably not, but if Siya Kolisi ends up lifting the World Cup again, the volume of conversation around those issues may well get a lot louder.