Title secured, All Blacks now out to prove a point vs. Boks
Even after wrapping up a third straight southern hemisphere title, the All Blacks face a defining game for their season and, maybe, for the hopes of all the others at the Rugby World Cup next year.
A second straight loss to South Africa in the final round of the Rugby Championship on Saturday would give opponents enough evidence to conclude that New Zealand — so dominant for the last seven years to win consecutive Rugby World Cup titles — might be vulnerable at rugby's showpiece next year in Japan, albeit it still being a year and many more matches away.
So superior have the All Blacks been that any apparent kinks in the armor — however small, however rare — are pounced upon.
The latest kink was the 36-34 loss to the Boks in Wellington three weeks ago.
So, even after the All Blacks rebounded to secure a sixth southern hemisphere title in seven years with few problems in Argentina last weekend, Saturday's test against the Springboks will, rightly or wrongly, leave the lasting impression of this championship.
Revenge and an All Blacks victory at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria will confine the Wellington game to a one-off, a hiccup for the world champions, as many believe it was.
Another loss to a rebuilding South Africa, and New Zealand will experience self-doubt for the first time in a long time.
Despite New Zealand losing for the first time in a year, the first time in 10 games, and only the second time at home in nine years, coach Steve Hansen said there's no more pressure this weekend than normal for the top-ranked team and one of sport's most successful franchises.
"Life for the All Blacks ... it's not about anything other than having to win," Hansen said on arrival in South Africa. "Expectations are that we win every test match, and if we win them we've got to win them well, so nothing will change for us."
Life has changed immeasurably for the Springboks and coach Rassie Erasmus, who were off back-to-back losses and pretty poor performances when they stunned the All Blacks.
South Africa's season turned on the win. Less than half the tickets for this weekend's return test had sold before that game. In the days after South Africa's win in New Zealand, the 50,000-seat Loftus Versfeld Stadium sold out.
There's also renewed belief among the Springboks that their most treasured rivalry, against New Zealand, is still alive despite South African rugby slipping so low so recently that the All Blacks won 57-0 a year ago.
"The All Blacks are going to come at us with everything they've got, they're going to try and prove a point," South Africa flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit said. "That said, we've got a point to prove as well."
The All Blacks saved some of their big guns for South Africa. Captain Kieran Read, prop Owen Franks and scrumhalf Aaron Smith all returned to the starting lineup having been rested in Argentina, restoring nearly 300 tests of experience to their lineup.
"It brings a lot of experience and some firepower, and we're going to need it," Hansen said.
Hansen has been complimentary of South Africa all week, as he often is, but the mindset of his players was questioned in the aftermath of Wellington when they were criticized by some for being overconfident.
Brendan Venter, the former South Africa assistant coach and World Cup winner with the Springboks in 1995, argued that line in a column for New Zealand website Stuff.
"The moment a team disrespects the opposition they open themselves up to be beaten, which is what happened in Wellington," Venter wrote. "... The All Black coaching staff would have told the players to respect the Springboks, but deep down they didn't."
All Blacks center Ryan Crotty denied that, saying "Nah, we always respect them."
Whether overconfident or just off-color, the All Blacks are unlikely to make the same mistakes twice.
"The All Blacks usually hit back hard after a loss so we have to be mentally and physically ready," Springboks coach Erasmus said.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Embrose Papier, Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Jack Goodhue, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu'inukuafe. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Tim Perry, Ofa Tuungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo'unga, Ryan Crotty.