Table-toppers New Zealand host second-placed South Africa in the standout match of Round Four’s Rugby Championship action, in Albany on Saturday.
The All Blacks head into this match undefeated after beating Argentina in New Plymouth and winning back-to-back matches against Australia.
But unlike last year, when they finished their campaign unbeaten and won all six their matches with bonus points, the world champions have been pushed in all their fixtures so far.
They started their campaign like a house on fire against the Wallabies in Sydney but despite holding a commanding 40-6 lead at half-time, they came off second best to the Wallabies in the second half before winning 54-33.
Australia came out firing the following weekend and after a topsy-turvy match – in which the lead changed hands several times – the All Blacks eventually secured a 35-29 victory thanks to a Beauden Barrett try in the Test’s dying moments.
And last weekend, they trailed Argentina by a point at half-time before a late surge in the second half secured them a 37-22 triumph in New Plymouth.
All Blacks boss Steve Hansen has picked his strongest available team and recalled first-choice players like Ryan Crotty, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock who will all be keen to hit the ground running in the All Blacks’ first Test in Albany since claiming a 91-0 win there against Fiji in 2005.
South Africa are a different beast to the one the All Blacks faced in 2016. Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee started the 2017 campaign under tremendous pressure after his troops won just four out of 12 Tests and drawing with the Barbarians in a non-international match.
That was the Boks’ worst return in living memory but after several changes to their playing corps as well as key alterations to the coaching staff, the two-time world champions have impressed this year.
They did well to claim a 3-0 series win over France in South Africa and then beat Argentina in their two Rugby Championship encounters before settling for a hard-fought draw against Australia in Perth last weekend.
Despite losing their new captain, Warren Whiteley, to injury earlier this year the side have prospered under the guidance of new skipper Eben Etzebeth.
South Africa will be determined to remain unbeaten in 2017 and highly motivated to get the better of the All Blacks who have dominated this fixture in recent years.
The All Blacks have won nine of their last 10 Tests against the Springboks, including each of their last four and claimed a 42-point win when they last met, which stands as the biggest win in the history of the fixture.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Elton Jantjies‘ performance will be as a direct result of the success or failure of the Bok pack. If given sufficient time and space to implement the kick-chase strategy, Jantjies could put pressure on the All Blacks back three, who are relatively smaller than their Bok counterparts. He also has the flair and vision to create gaps in the home side’s defensive wall, and put dangerous runners such as Jesse Kriel and Andries Coetzee into space.
For New Zealand: Aaron Smith‘s return to the starting XV is critical. Arguably the best nine in the world right now, Smith’s accurate and speedy delivery, along with his quick feet around the breakdown, is usually the begininng of any All Blacks attack that more often than not results in points being scored. The Boks must also be wary of his ability to sniff out a gap close to the ruck.
Head-to-Head: Raymond Rhule is big, fast and consistent. He does appear to struggle on defence and will face arguably his toughest test yet against the out and out pace of Rieko Ioane. The All Blacks will target Rhule with up and unders and with ball in hand. He needs to step up on defence for the Boks to stand any sort of chance.
2016: New Zealand won 57-15 in Durban
2016: New Zealand won 41-13 in Christchurch
2015: New Zealand won 20-18 in London (RWC semi-final)
2015: New Zealand won 27-20 in Johannesburg
2014: South Africa won 27-25 in Johannesburg
2014: New Zealand won 14-10 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
Prediction: The Springboks will deliver a much better performance than last year’s effort but will still come up short. All Blacks to win by 10 points!
New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
South Africa: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Damian de Allende
Date: Saturday, September 16
Venue: QBE Stadium, Albany
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)