CAPE TOWN – Renowned New Zealand rugby writer Phil Gifford, in his book Loose among the Legends, writes that in 1996 he celebrated his wife’s 50th birthday at the Sumner Yacht Club. The invitation asked people to come dressed as their fantasy.
Gifford recalls being one of those tragics who came as an All Black, while former New Zealand prop Richard Loe, infamous for being nasty on the field, came as the devil.
Gifford writes: “Former All Black flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens arrived clothed from head to toe in a real Springbok uniform, complete with the No 10 on the back of the jersey.
“When there was a chance to have a private word with him, I said: ‘Mehrts, I know you were born in South Africa, but please don’t tell me your fantasy is to be a Springbok?’ Mehrts responded: ‘No, not at all. This is Joel Stransky’s gear, when we swapped after the 1995 World Cup final last year. My fantasy is to be the guy who kicks the winning goal in a World Cup final, not the di** who misses it.’
Mehrtens is also famous for his exchange with Springbok flyhalf Henry Honiball, who had announced his retirement after the Boks had beaten the All Blacks in the 1999 World Cup third-place playoff. Mehrtens thanked Honiball for their battles and asked him never to come back to international rugby. Such was the relief Mehrtens felt that he wouldn’t have to line-up opposite the Bok hard man.
There was such respect back then for the rivalry and there was equal respect in 2009 when Richie McCaw described the Springboks as the best team he had ever faced and admitted in his autobiography that in 2009 he doubted if the All Blacks would find a way to beat the Boks after three successive defeats.
The Bok formula in 2009 was a well-conditioned and powerful pack, the line kicking genius of Fourie du Preez and two wings in Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen whose chase game could turn any kick into a good one. It took the All Blacks an entire year to find a way to combat the Boks’ game plan and win again.
Now the All Blacks find themselves doubting their attack again, with the rivalry at a peak after two decades of one-sided results.
Since 1992, the Springboks have won just 17% of their matches against the All Blacks, but in the last four Tests, two won by the All Blacks, one by the Boks and one being a draw, the points differential is just one point.
All Black coach Steve Hansen has credited Rassie Erasmus with transforming the Springboks’ defensive game and admitted that the Boks defence was too good for the All Blacks’ attack in the 16-all draw, when the Kiwis could manage just one try.
In New Zealand there is media consensus that the traditional foe South Africa is finally back on an equal with the All Blacks and that it will not surprise any New Zealander if the All Blacks lose on Saturday.
Mark Keohane is an award-winning rugby writer and head of Independent Media Sport