Preview: South Africa v New Zealand

Date published: October 23 2015

Defending champions New Zealand are set for their biggest test of the World Cup to date in Saturday's semi-final against South Africa at Twickenham.

This is the one we have waited for. Right from the moment the World Cup draw was made back in December 2012 all eyes were on the potential clash between the Springboks and All Blacks.

The results have gone as expected (Japan aside) – now a week before the final we get a contest worthy of the main event itself.

Australia have to be respected for escaping the group of death and the work done by Michael Cheika, but these two are rugby's giants. No two sides are more feared or respected. In many ways they stand alone.

Even in that unique two-team club, there is an obvious gulf. New Zealand's 62-13 crushing of France was a hell of a statement, a record-setting winning margin for the knockout stages at the World Cup as they became the first side to reach a seventh World Cup semi-final.

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So much for the defending champions appearing rusty. Now they are frothing at the mouth with two more bits of history very much on the horizon – becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles and also the first to win three World Cups.

We've admired New Zealand's dominance in the past, but this group feels different. Steve Hansen's job this week has been to get his side over the emotion of last Saturday night but it won't have taken much work.

They no longer seem a soft touch mentally. Their weaknesses are at a minimum. Yet at World Cups they have a losing record against the Boks.

Heyneke Meyer's claim that this All Blacks side, with only three defeats in the last four years, are the greatest ever to play the game holds some sway. Even if it was a play straight out of the Warren Gatland book of mind games.

Which made Hansen's return of serve all the more satisfying. “That’s a tactic. We know they want to rip our heads off."

South Africa will have to be nearly perfect. The fitness of Lood de Jager is imperative, as is convincing Jérôme Garcès that they have the upper hand at the scrum by targeting new boy Joe Moody.

The Springboks can always threaten through their ball carriers but as we saw with France, one man going through a hole with no support runners is a lost cause.

Fourie du Preez and Handré Pollard have an enormous role to play when it comes to game management and keeping the All Blacks back in their own half, except loose kicks will be punished.

This has been a rollercoaster of a World Cup for Meyer's team from that horror show against Japan to never looking quite comfortable in the win over Wales to reach the last four. No side has ever lost a group game and gone on to win it all.

A stronger build-up might have inspired more confidence, but South Africa are still here and other teams are not.

Coming in as underdogs, the pressure is all off their shoulders. Special players like Duane Vermeulen and Bryan Habana need one of their greatest games for their country.

Ones to Watch

For South Africa: A rare threat on attack, Willie le Roux feels like a weakness on defence for South Africa who will be tested out by the kicking game of Aaron Smith, Dan Carter and Ben Smith. Le Roux has been exceptional in the past but in such an enormous game like this one there is no room for error and he feels like an easy target. Now is also the time for Damien de Allende to confirm that he is a world class centre with his best Test performance to date.

For New Zealand: For a man with so many international tries it's remarkable that Julian Savea has never scored a Test try against the Springboks. The wrecking-ball wing grabbed three against France and looks sharp after a disappointing Super Rugby season, now tied on Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana's record of eight tries in a tournament. Aware of the threat posed by Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Louw at the breakdown, Richie McCaw will be licking his lips at the prospect of another challenge in his 147th cap as he looks for a 20th career win over South Africa.

Head-to-head: There's plenty to savour in seeing Eben Etzebeth and Brodie Retallick going up against each other in the second row, with Retallick such a natural ball player around the field and Etzebeth charged with matching him while using his inner aggression in a controlled manner.

But it's the battle of two props – Frans Malherbe and Joe Moody – that may define this game. Malherbe starts ahead of Jannie du Plessis for only his 11th Test, having done well to break up the established Sharks front row that has featured heavily over the last decade. Hansen meanwhile said there was no debate in bringing a specialist loosehead like Moody for his 10th cap ahead of the versatile Ben Franks after injuries to both Tony Woodcock and Wyatt Crockett. Neither have as much Test experience as their coaches would like.

Previous results:

2015: New Zealand won 27-20 in Johannesburg
2014: South Africa won 27-25 in Johannesburg
2014: New Zealand won 10-14 in Wellington
2013: New Zealand won 38-27 in Johannesburg
2013: New Zealand won 29-15 in Auckland
2012: New Zealand won 32-16 in Johannesburg
2012: New Zealand won 21-11 in Dunedin
2011: South Africa won 18-5 in Port Elizabeth
2011: New Zealand won 40-7 in Wellington
2003 (RWC): New Zealand won 29-9 in Melbourne

Prediction: South Africa certainly won't touch their biggest losing margin at a World Cup – 20 points from their 29-9 loss to the All Blacks at the 2003 World Cup – but it's hard to look past the defending champions. We've had plenty of classics so far in this World Cup and this may top the lot. New Zealand by seven points.

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez (c), 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody. 
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.

Date: Saturday, October 24
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

by Ben Coles