CAPE TOWN – The mental contest could be the deciding factor when the Springboks take on the All Blacks in Yokohama in their World Cup opener.
Not like it isn’t always a factor in sport, but given how few points have separated these two teams recently, plus the extreme conditions Japan will present, it’s going to take more than just a physical effort to come out on top. Two or fewer points have separated the Springboks and All Blacks in the last four Tests, and from what we know, the Boks have certainly done the most to condition themselves for the heat and humidity that teams are going to face during the rugby spectacle.
They were the first team to arrive in Japan, while their final World Cup warm-up against the hosts last Friday – which they won 41-7 – should also have given them an ideal opportunity to experience Test-match rugby in those conditions. The slippery ball itself played a role in both sides’ handling, of course, while the Boks would have also felt the effects of the weather in Kumagaya in the second half.
The South Africans are based in Kagoshima this week, a decision Bok coach Rassie Erasmus made to best prepare his teams for what lies ahead.
The muggy, southern seaside city isn’t a World Cup venue, just a training base, and earlier this week Erasmus explained that he purposefully chose for the Boks to be based there because “the more extreme the circumstances you train under, the better the body gets conditioned.” The SA director of rugby added: “That was part of the plan, to get the body through really tough and extreme times so that when we get to the Test matches, we’re a little bit more used to the conditions.”
Considering that the New Zealanders haven’t had a run-out in the form of a game in Japan building up to the World Cup, the Boks’ last friendly should prove a valuable asset going into next Saturday’s fixture.
But it’s going to be all about implementation next week. No rugby fan would need any reminding of the defending world champions’ ability to shift into a different gear in the last quarter of a game, and their bench will again play a vital role in that regard.
That alone makes the management of the Bok bench important for the first game, but the replacements will also be huge when it comes to the demands of the match in those sweltering conditions and how they hold up. But even before the bench plays a role, it’s not just going to come down to how effectively the Boks implement their own game plan, but also how they adapt to what the New Zealanders throw at them, all while still focusing on proper execution and not allowing the physical discomfort thanks to the conditions to chip away from the quality of their execution.
If Wellington (on both occasions), Cape Town and Pretoria have proved anything, it’s that it’s safe to say the rivalry between SA and New Zealand is very much alive again. But other than for confidence, past results will matter little when they meet in Yokohama.
What will matter is what they do on the day, and a lot of that will come down to that mental factor.
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