Sam Cane and Ardie Savea look on during a New Zealand All Blacks training session. Photo / Getty Images
By Liam Napier in South Africa
Mbombela Stadium’s towering stands were empty as the All Blacks briefly strolled around the venue, with its giraffe-shaped roof supports and miniature in-goals, one day out from the first
of two tests against the Springboks. On Sunday morning (NZT), though, those same stands will be rocking.
Mbombela is a city abuzz with anticipation. Accommodation venues – right through to the unlisted guest house – are sold out. Newspaper front pages promoting the match adorn near every post on the main streets. Locals sell Springboks jerseys and flags while air-conditioned cars wait at the lights.
For the 45,000 in attendance this is a match 31 months in the making. On February 4, 2020, South African Rugby officially announced that Mbombela would host the Springboks and All Blacks on September 26 that year – only for the global pandemic to postpone the occasion until now.
By the time the 5pm local kickoff arrives, the warm Lowveld air will carry a fever pitch.
Noise has followed the All Blacks on their first venture to South Africa in four years. Even a continent away, Ian Foster’s quest to save his job is inescapable. For a moment in time this weekend, though, that noise will be replaced by the intimidating, hostile atmosphere of Mbombela Stadium where fans sit a matter of meters from the field.
Such a scene paints a daunting picture of a venue to arrest a decline that’s seen the All Blacks lose four of their past five tests.
All Blacks captain Sam Cane gathered his men in a huddle for a quiet word on the pitch before departing back to their isolated Ingwenyama Resort but it was Ardie Savea who delivered the public call to arms.
“I think this week is the turning point,” Savea, one of the All Blacks best performers this year, proclaimed. “Don’t worry about next week, we’ve got to nail this week. It’s a turning week for us. Every week we put on the black jersey is important for us. It’s a chance to stake our claim and do the jersey proud .”
Rectifying their poor starts – Ireland scored first in all three tests last month and led 22-3 at half time in Wellington – is a non-negotiable for the All Blacks.
“I enjoy coming here with the bus ride in and the fans having a braai outside. It’s going to be loud – we just have to adjust,” Savea said. “We know the crowd gives the Springboks a bit of an edge so we have to hone that in and try and keep them quiet.
“The place we’re staying is quite secluded and we’re on our own so it’s nice to be there and be close, be together, and do the things we needed to do. It’s been a good week of preparation. I can’ t wait. We haven’t been in South Africa for four years so it’s really exciting to be here and to play the Springboks.”
The All Blacks have waited three weeks for the chance to harness the hurt from their last loss to Ireland in Wellington and, for all the focus on Foster’s future, the players must now assume their responsibility to lead the response.
“There’s only so much coaching the coaches can do. We’re the ones who are out on the field and have to execute the game plan,” Savea said. “It’s one thing talking about it during the week and another actually doing it. That’s a massive challenge for us as players.
“We’re wounded. We didn’t get the result we wanted a couple of weeks ago but today is a new day, this week is a new week so it’s a new challenge for us and there’s no bigger challenge than the Springboks here.
“It’s very exciting, it’s nerve-racking as well to be honest, but we’re excited for the challenge of rectifying a few things.”
Savea, who boasts a 6-2 record that includes four tries against the Boks, knows the All Blacks pack must deliver a vastly improved performance for the visitors to have any chance of causing an upset.
The All Blacks have also, however, expressed the desire to rekindle their attacking flair; to impose their up-tempo style and breath of skill on the Boks. While hidden away at their enclosed resort, this is the approach they have attempted to embrace.
“There’s a lot that goes into it but we’ve got to turn up physically. We know how the Springboks play and the physicality they bring and even their skill sets. We’ve had a bit of time to hone our skills and hopefully take a deep look at ourselves so come this weekend we can put out a performance we can be proud of.
“We’ve got great athletes in our team and ones that if you give them time and space with ball in hand they can be very dangerous. We’ve been working on that the last couple of weeks to try and give us opportunities where we can showcase that and put us in the right areas of the field. Hopefully it can come out on Saturday.”
History tells us the All Blacks rise for the Springboks more than any other opponent. Even if that notion proves true again, they require a giant leap from their underwhelming Irish series.