The simplistic view is that the All Blacks just have to meet Boks force with Kiwi might and they can secure the victory they so desperately need in the Rugby Championship opener in Mbombela on Saturday (early Sunday NZT).
But coach Ian Foster – more than likely battling to save his national coaching career in these back-to-back contests in the republic – knows better.
After naming a side featuring four changes from the series decider against Ireland, including a minor bombshell at hooker where Samisoni Taukei’aho gets just his second start in the biggest test of his short career, he made it clear that brainpower would be every bit as important as horsepower in this opening matchup.
This is not your typical New Zealand-South Africa test, however.
That’s for the simple reason that the All Blacks are struggling mightily for form, cohesion and confidence, having lost four of their last five, suffered a rare home series defeat in July and not made this visit since 2018 (the Boks, would you believe, haven’t beaten the New Zealanders on their home deck since 2014).
Foster has responded by tweaking his lineup slightly, bringing in the more dynamic power game of the Chiefs hooker, starting Angus Ta’avao at tighthead prop in the absence of Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi, moving Scott Barrett back to lock with Brodie Retallick out, And handing a fit-again Caleb Clarke his first test start since his sensational debut season in 2020.
It’s an All Blacks pack with plenty of experience – a combined 387 caps, compared to South Africa’s 449 – but light on runs on the board across the front row.
Ta’avao, Taukei’aho and sophomore loosehead George Bower look set for a brutal examination up front. They’re also a group still searching for a collective might, as badly exposed by the Irish.
A South African journalist asked Foster a slightly loaded question revolving around the Boks being a one-trick pony, but with a very good trick, and his forwards needing to “man up”.
“It’s about the team managing up,” said the coach.
“They’re definitely not a one-trick pony – that’s just a fallacy. But what they do well, they do really well. You don’t become world champions if you’re not proficient in a lot of areas. They’re a great team … but it’s about us not getting too hung up on that and going in with a mindset to play our game.
“There is an edge, we know we can play better, but you do that by honing down and getting excited about playing how we want to play.
“So, manning up? We’ll always man up. That’s not the issue. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to have a pretty good combination of both.”
Foster was also asked about any “angst” the All Blacks took in to Saturday’s first appearance in the town formerly known as Nelspruit.
“There’s been a lot of reflection from our players, on their roles, their performances … it has created an edge in the week, and then you dovetail that with where we are and who we are playing and it’s a great concoction.”
The All Blacks coach didn’t want to get into too much detail around the coaching shakeup.
He’s now hands-on with the attack, and new face Jason Ryan has command of the big men after the mid-year firing of John Plumtree and Brad Mooar.
“You’d probably write it up as just an old voice saying the same old stuff,” he responded a little cryptically to the Kiwi scribe’s question on the subject.
“Much is made of the last series, but we were in the process of putting blocks in place. Did we get everything right? No, but we’ve got a lot of faith in areas where we want to grow our game. There are tweaks in attack we’re working on, but some are just focus points we didn’t get right in the last series.”
In terms of Taukei’aho’s dramatic promotion, with Codie Taylor playing the price for an off-key July with omission (Dane Coles comes off the bench), Foster said the 24-year-old Tonga-born hooker had earned this crack.
“He’s uncomplicated. We don’t believe he gets over-awed on big occasions and he’s been a big mover the last 12 months. Physicality is not his only purpose, but it is a key strength.
“We’ve got three good hookers. Dane has an energy about him and we feel his experience in that latter part of the game is going to be key.”
The pack selection, added Foster, had been a mix of turning into established combinations (Taukei’aho and Ta’avao are Chiefs team-mates, Barrett and Whitelock are second-row regulars for franchise and country) and rewarding form.
“We had a good look at Akira [Ioane]. We liked his growth last year. He came in for the third [Irish] test, and we felt he did some really good things. He’s a big, physical man, but he’s going to need to be.”
And Clarke’s return was a no-brainer.
“We need to get ball in his hands, and we need to get him involved. If that happens there will be more good moments than bad ones.”
Not so much time to man up, as play well.
All Blacks: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (capt), Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Quinn Tupaea.