It can't get any worse for the Boks can it? That question will be answered when South Africa attempt to pick themselves up in Wellington.
It can't get any worse for the Springboks can it? That question will be answered when South Africa attempt to pick themselves up for Saturday's return Tri-Nations bout with New Zealand in Wellington.
Last week's morale-sapping 32-12 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks – which came via four unanswered tries – was unexpected and caught everyone (Graham Henry included) by surprise. After waiting 12 months for revenge, the result went a long way in helping erase the pain the country felt from losing all three Tests to South Africa last year.
It now means the world champions have had a week to reflect, digest and – more importantly – find ways of improving significantly before Round Two kicks off at Westpac Stadium. Anything close to a repeat performance between two of the most battle-scarred combatants in the 89-year-old rivalry, will result in another one-sided spectacle.
Worrying for the visitors is that New Zealand, too, have room for improvement – this, after enjoying 66 per cent possession, dominating the setpieces and forcing the Springboks into 30 missed tackles. The All Blacks have not steamrollered the Boks in contact for some time, but they did it emphatically in Auckland.
In a nutshell, it was New Zealand's best performance so far this year and if any team wanted to lay down a marker of a performance for the next 14 months leading up to and including the 2011 Rugby World Cup, that was surely it.
With the tables now turned, it's the All Blacks who will hold the psychological edge over their old foes heading into this weekend's clash at the Cake Tin – a venue where the visitors have failed to produce an away win in three previous visits.
The biggest obstacle facing the All Blacks now in the run-in to Saturday's Test, is to dismiss any complacency and rekindle the desire that was such a motivation last week at Eden Park. There was a great deal of heat on Richie McCaw and his troops to get to the level they achieved. If anything, expectation had been raised rather than relaxed, with McCaw admitting that last week's exceptional performance was partly driven by public pressure.
“Everyone was sort of wondering where we were at,” he said.
“The challenge this week is to back up the performance we put together. You put pressure on yourself to do that.
“Being able to do it consistently is a sign of a good rugby team and good rugby players, no matter whether you're under pressure or if things have gone well in the past.”
Now it's the Springboks' turn.
But South Africa, of course, are not world champions for nothing. They'll return much better prepared and wipe the slate clean as they look to put a disappointing defeat behind them and balance the ledger with the All Blacks.
Despite all their recent success, you still get the sense that this Springbok side are not ready to embrace the tags of favourites. However they now find themselves in their preferred position, with their backs against the wall – a situaiton that has worked out quite well for them in the past.
Bok coach Peter de Villiers said after his team's forgetable outing that there was no reason to panic. Perhaps it is a bit premature after one indifferent showing to label the Boks as flops, but alarm bells will certainly be ringing in the South African camp.
De Villiers' solution? Field the same bunch of players that failed to produce the goods and hope his loyalty pays off. Two forced changes seperate the team that started last week with Danie Rossouw in for disgraced Bakkies Botha at lock while CJ van der Linde comes in for tighthead Jannie du Plessis, who sustained a calf injury during the Auckland match.
Last week it was the turn of the All Blacks to name their most experienced team (671 caps), now South Africa will have all the experience in the world to call on after De Villiers announced the most capped Springbok team in history (bang on 700 caps).
Whether De Villiers' faith in keeping questionable combinations together actually pays off remains to be seen, but one feels a big reshuffle will be in order next weekend against Australia if the Boks crumble again.
The gamble to keep Jean de Villiers on the wing where everyone knows that his expertise lies in the centres may come back to slap his namesake in the face. So too will the Bok coach's stance to keep Ricky Januarie in the starting line-up with the likes of Ruan Pienaar – one of the in-form scrum-halves in the Super 14 – warming the pine. Zane Kirchner didn't do badly last weekend, but Frans Steyn at the back would settle a lot of nerves in the Republic.
In Wellington – where any excuse of jet lag gets thrown out the window – the early collisions will again determine the direction of the match, as will the ability to get a healthy early lead. Every team, as shown last weekend at Eden Park, is vulnerable when forced to come from behind.
Expect a Bok backlash, but the effectiveness thereof will depend on South Africa's ability to quickly address their flaws. However, even if they do manage to make the wrongs right, it still won't guarentee the visitors a victory – especially against an All Blacks side that have set last weekend's result as the benchmark for the rest of the season. A scary thought indeed.
Another classic Test encounter awaits…
Ones to watch:
For New Zealand: Some will say Rene Ranger's first start for the All Blacks is long overdue. The speed machine was a standout for the Blues during the Super 14, beating defenders effortlessly through a mix of pace and rare power for an outside back. But how he handles the heat of battle in the Test arena remains to be seen. Ranger showed some glimpses against Wales in Hamilton, but was perhaps unfairly remembered more for butchering a three-man over-lap than anything else. Following that 25-minute debut in midfield, Ranger's ability at the top level is still in question but his raw talents means he's worth the risk.
For South Africa: With Bakkes Botha out of the mix after letting his team-mates and country down with his Rambo-style headbutt, the door once again opens for in-form Danie Rossouw. Whilst Botha was serving a sentence for another off-the-ball incident, Rossouw hit all the right notes in the June Tests and it was baffling as to why he was dropped in the first place upon his Bulls' colleague's return. After passing a late fitness test, it will be hoped by Bok management that South Africa's new 'enforcer' is less of a disciplinary liability and brings more rugby than thuggery to the game.