AUCKLAND (Reuters) - South Africa’s revival in the world rugby pecking order will face its first true test when they take on the All Blacks in their Rugby Championship match at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday.
The Springboks endured an awful 2016 as they suffered their first loss to Ireland at home and were thumped 41-13 and 57-15 by the All Blacks in their two Rugby Championship clashes.
They also lost all three of their end-of-season tests in Europe as they ended the year with just four wins from 12 matches and slumped as low as seventh in the world rankings by this March.
Coach Allister Coetzee, however, has overhauled the team personnel, playing style and culture this year and they are unbeaten in six tests with five wins and a draw before their clash with the world champions on Saturday (kickoff 0735 GMT).
“It has been bloody challenging,” Coetzee said of the team’s transformation in 2017. “I am pleased that we have changed it. We made some tweaks — we are a team in transition.
“The players enjoy the new environment and we have improved, but we’re not there yet. We need to prove ourselves against the world’s best... and Saturday will be a huge test for us.
“I can only see on Saturday how good we are.”
Coetzee made just three changes from the team that started in the 23-23 draw against the Wallabies with Ruan Dreyer making his second test appearance at tighthead prop after Coenie Oosthuizen broke his arm last week in Perth.
Flanker Jaco Kriel was also sent home from Auckland after scans revealed a torn muscle in his shoulder and was replaced in the starting side by Jean-Luc du Preez, while lock Franco Mostert returns to partner captain Eben Etzebeth.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had his own injury issues with winger Israel Dagg battling a serious knee problem, while prop Joe Moody was ruled out for the season after he dislocated his shoulder in the 39-22 win over the Pumas last week.
Hansen has given the destructive scrummaging Kane Hames the opportunity for his first start - in just his third test - at loosehead prop instead of the more experienced Wyatt Crockett.
“He’s very destructive,” Hansen said of the 29-year-old Hames, who has battled knee injuries that have stalled his professional career.
“He has a great ability to get around the park too but his set piece play is what we like about him. That’s why he’s here.”
Hansen added the Springboks of 2017 were a different side from last year and he expected a hard, physical contest prompting him to bring back loose forwards Liam Squire and Sam Cane and lock Sam Whitelock in an effort to dominate the collision and gain line.
“We are definitely facing a different team,” he said.
“They’re full of confidence. That comes from winning. I think confidence is not something you can buy or bottle, if you have got it that’s invaluable.”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly