A storied & complicated history: Why the All Blacks-Springboks rivalry is something special

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As rugby's greatest rivalry prepares to pen another chapter in its storied and complicated history, it is worth pausing to reflect on why the All Blacks and Springboks coming to blows is so compelling.

The simplistic explanation, at the most basic level, is these teams are the most successful in the global game, having claimed three Rugby World Cups each.

Any sport stands still for the best against the best.

Rugby is fortunate in this regard compared to, say, heavyweight boxing where champions and promoters do everything within their power to avoid risky opponents. Rugby is instead treated to this showdown twice a year during the Rugby Championship.

Some may suggest the professional age has bastardised the rivalry. Certainly, a return to genuine tours would be welcomed by all. But in a Covid-free landscape when the All Blacks and Boks meet home and away, I can assure you the hype and anticipation for those fixtures in both nations remains as feverish as ever.

These back-to-back Tests originally scheduled for Dunedin and Auckland, which will now be staged in Queensland, were sold out. That's something the All Blacks did not achieve in their five home Tests this season.

Townsville's neutral territory is hardly fitting to celebrate the All Blacks and Springboks locking horns for the 100th time but, in the current climate, it's as good as we'll get.

Two other aspects play an integral role in building the rivalry to where it sits today.

Modern-day players are rarely students of history but for those with life-long affiliations to the game there's no doubt events such as the controversial 1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand; the rebel All Blacks' Cavalier tour in 1986, Sir Bryan Williams' feats as an 'honorary white' during the apartheid regime and the Cape Crusaders fans that followed add to the fabric of today's contests.

Other moments stand in time, too.

Sean Fitzpatrick thumping the ground in Pretoria after leading the All Blacks to their first series triumph in South Africa in 1996.

And, on a personal level, covering the greatest game of the modern era - the All Blacks 38-27 victory at Ellis Park in 2013, which featured a 747 flyover pre-kickoff to emulate the '95 World Cup final at the same venue, nine tries, two yellow cards and New Zealand's first victory at the home of South African rugby in 16 years. No other atmosphere will ever compare.

These events, and many others, have formed deep-seated respect that's been passed through generations.

Beauden Barrett recounted this week rising with his siblings and parents to witness All Blacks Tests in South Africa at 3am, accompanied by a warm milo made by his mum. He's far from alone in this tradition.

From an All Blacks' perspective, long before the Rugby Championship was again shifted to Australia, these two Tests were circled on the calendar.

Regardless of the Boks' repeat defeats by the Wallabies in the past two weeks that flipped the script on their apparent impenetrable credentials, the All Blacks view these matches as the chance to test themselves against the best.

For Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Ian Foster's squad, Saturday is the first time in 11 years the All Blacks will face a team holding the world champion mantle. Make no mistake, that means something.

"They're the current World Cup champions and it's the first time this team has played a world champion in a long time - it's been the All Blacks title for so long," Retallick said. "They've earned that reputation so we're going out there to hopefully take it to them."

As stand-in captain Ardie Savea noted, regaining the No. 1 world ranking last week is an afterthought compared to toppling the Boks.

"My mindset is you've got to beat the No 1 to be the No 1," Savea said after the 36-13 win over the Pumas where Foster rotated 11 of his starting team.

Everything points to the All Blacks continuing their eight-match unbeaten run this season.

The All Blacks have lost one of their past 10 Tests against the Boks which includes their pool play victory at the 2019 World Cup in Yokohama.

The All Blacks are fresher, with many starters resting last weekend, confident, potent, and embracing with much more clarity of game plan.

Foster's men also know exactly what's coming. There's no secret to how the Boks will attack this match. They will revert to type - conservative, dull tactics that worked for them in the dire British & Irish Lions series. Scrum, maul, kick, defend are pillars of the Boks game.

Retallick and the All Blacks pack are well aware the Boks present their toughest challenge of the year, and they appear charged for the challenge.

"They've caught us out previously with their defensive line speed," Retallick said. "They've out muscled us and we haven't been able to break them down through our attack and they've punished us. Physically you've always got the set-piece battle but being able to deal with their line speed and being able to make breaches and then convert them is going to be massive.

"It is two completely different styles. From our view it's what we do with the ball. We don't want to get caught up going set-piece to set-piece. If that does happen then we need to control it and front there. But with the freedom the boys are playing with and creating opportunities that's no doubt how we want to play our game."

Last week against the Wallabies the Boks went away from their traditional strengths. The result? Their worst performance in three years.

In many ways Dave Rennie's Wallabies laid the blueprint, with the 2020 year the Boks spent out of the Test arena clearly catching them out when confronted with teams willing to attack the wide channels and offload.

The pace and tempo the Wallabies adopted left the Boks out on their feet - and if the All Blacks manage to impose their game that speed will lift several notches this weekend.

All Blacks forward coach John Plumtree detailed the importance of his pack carrying and cleaning with pace and aggression to negate the Boks suffocating defensive line speed.

If the Boks can't slow the speed and reduce the spectacle to a grind, they could be in for a long night that leaves one team glorifying this milestone match, and the other questioning their fear of flamboyance.