TOKYO (Reuters) - New Zealand’s encounter with South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday may have little influence on the progression of the heavyweight pair to the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup, but is a chance for both to lay down a major marker in Japan.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has dismissed the idea that his side are more vulnerable than the winning teams of 2011 and 2015, while the Springboks will be eager to prove their title credentials to those that doubt their ability to put together a consist run of wins over top nations.
It is the start of a seven-match slog to the final on Nov. 2, and while Hansen will not read too much into a defeat for either side, he knows it would raise more questions and doubts about his team.
“If South Africa or ourselves get beaten, you can either roll over and say, ‘We can’t win it (the trophy)’, or you say, ‘We have to win all our (six remaining) games from here on in’. It’s a long tournament, a marathon and not a sprint,” he told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.
“You get two types, I reckon,” he added. “You get those who definitely don’t want us to win … because it’s not in their interests for us to win. Then you get the other group who desperately want us to win and they’re all nervous because we haven’t played any games.
“As soon as we get this tournament under way we’ll get rid of all that peripheral noise out there, and it’s pretty meaningless noise too – people having opinions who have no idea of what’s actually happening in some of these teams.”
Hansen provided few selection surprises, with Richie Mo’unga retaining the number 10 jersey and Ardie Savea moving to across the scrum to blindside flank.
The loss of lock Brodie Retallick to injury is a blow, but that has been countered by the return to fitness of inside centre Ryan Crotty, who is preferred to Sonny Bill Williams.
South Africa are unbeaten in 2019 and claimed the Rugby Championship title for the first time in a decade, in part thanks to a 16-16 draw with the All Blacks in Wellington in July.
That is part of a tight recent run between the sides that has seen just two points separating them on aggregate in their last four meetings.
And Bok coach Rassie Erasmus believes a 57-0 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in 2016 was the turning point for the team in their rise to World Cup contenders.
“Getting smashed 57-0 was really low for us and we had to hit rock bottom to start building up and getting respect back in world rugby,” he says.
“It will be very sad if we lose on Saturday but it’s not the end and then the Italy game becomes really important to come out of the pool.”
Erasmus has selected what he clearly sees as his best starting XV, retaining the same players that defeated Japan 41-7 in their final warm-up fixture on Sept. 6.
With Italy, Namibia and Canada also in Pool B, the reigning world champions and a resurgent Boks are heavily favoured to be the top two in the group, whatever happens in their opener.
Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Shri Navaratnam