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Handre Pollard of the Springboks. Picture: ANTON GEYSER/GALLO IMAGES
Handre Pollard of the Springboks. Picture: ANTON GEYSER/GALLO IMAGES

Having got the prediction that I made before the Springbok-All Black game in Auckland horribly wrong, there was some fence-sitting before the Twickenham clash between the teams. “It will be a close game,” was as far as the prediction went in my preview.

What Friday night’s game proved though was that the initial impression of a few weeks ago was accurate. The All Black forwards made some progress under new assistant coach Jason Ryan after last August’s blowout in Mbombela, but not enough. The London destruction of the New Zealand eight showed just how superior the SA big men are.

What hadn’t been considered before the Rugby Championship game in Auckland was that many of the Bok players that started that game were playing their first international match of the season. It was different for the All Blacks. Most of their starting team played in Argentina the previous week.

There was a reversal of that situation in London. With the second choice team having played the second Bledisloe Cup match, most of the first choice Kiwi players were getting their first hit out since the first Bledisloe win in Melbourne on July 30. So this time it was the All Blacks who had rust exposed early on.

But while there will be a level playing field if the two meet again in a World Cup quarterfinal, I’d expect the same result. As was shown in Mbombela 12 months ago, the Bok forwards are just too powerful for the All Blacks. Even when Scott Barrett was still on the field, the chasm between the two packs was just too large at Twickenham.

Of course, you can never completely write off the All Blacks in a one-off game. That was demonstrated in Johannesburg last year. They just have too much individual talent. But what happened at Twickenham was in a sense telegraphed in the last hour in the Auckland game. Their fast start meant New Zealand were too far ahead to be caught after the first 20 minutes, but the Boks were the dominant team after that.

Skills missed

Whichever way you look at it, Friday was a great win for the Boks, and they will go into this World Cup now with huge momentum. And there are some positive selection headaches for Jacques Nienaber to face up to in the build-up to the first RWC game against Scotland on September 10.

There was a feeling in some quarters that Willie le Roux’s attacking skills were missed at Twickenham, yet Damian Willemse was the official man of the match. While even he appeared to hint that maybe the award should have been given to a forward, he was nonetheless deserving of praise. He has a physicality and abrasiveness that Le Roux lacks in the last line of defence, and his tackling is too good to imagine him being bumped off by an opponent like Le Roux was, in quite embarrassing fashion too, in Auckland.

There shouldn’t be any debate at flyhalf if you look just at the squad that has been selected for France. Manie Libbok, who was outstanding in every aspect of play, is really the only specialist pivot there.

And yet Nienaber confused us a bit, and gave fuel to the conspiracy theorists, during the week when he spent quite a bit of time talking about the recoveries of Handré Pollard and Lukhanyo Am. Pollard is ready to play again and if there were an injury at Twickenham, we might well have already seen him added to the squad.

And that would not be a bad thing as while Libbok was brilliant at Twickenham, and slotted every kick at goal in addition to his all-round game, the word “erratic” that has been attached to his name so much recently does by its very definition imply he will have some good days. It is the bad days, which can be very bad, that Bok fans worry about, for you never know when they will come.

But what is also becoming increasingly obvious is that Libbok is a better rugby player, particularly in the attacking sense, than Pollard. The 2019 World Cup winner was a precocious attacking talent when he first played international rugby in 2014, but he had that coached out of him.

Also let’s not forget that if Pollard does get to play at the World Cup, his first game there will be his first match in a long time. We hear he has been training at inside centre for the Boks, and that may well be the best solution for Nienaber. Not to replace Damian de Allende or André Esterhuizen, both of whom are outstanding 12s, and so is Willemse for that matter if needed there, but because it would leave the door open for Pollard to be on the field, with Libbok, late in a tight World Cup play-off game. So he’d be there to repeat the kind of pressure kick that won the 2019 semifinal against Wales.

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