All Blacks folk hero Stephen Donald, who knows exactly what it’s like to go back to back against the Boks at their intimidating home fortresses, believes the looming acid-test for Ian Foster’s ailing New Zealanders could be just what the doctor ordered.
It sounds incongruous, counter-intuitive even, but Donald, who rates the Springboks in the republic as the toughest challenge in the game, believes the looming consecutive tests against the world champions in Mbombela and Johannesburg could be the making, rather than the breaking, of these faltering All Blacks.
The parallels with 2009 – last time the All Blacks played back-to-back tests against the Boks in South Africa – are vivid as Foster and his men launch preparations for next weekend’s opening test in Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit), the capital of the Mpumalanga provinces.
The players have held their own meetings, with the coaches, who are left adamant they can turn this team around.
But so are the lessons, say Donald and fellow ’09 tourist and All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina, for the faltering All Blacks as they head for their first two Rugby Championship fixtures against a confident Springboks outfit in no mood to give their staunchest rivals a leg up.
Graham Henry’s under-strength, rebuilding All Blacks lost both tests in the republic in ’09, and would go on to drop a third match for the year against the South Africans in Hamilton in what Muliaina described as the “low point” for a group that would eventually rule the world in 2011.
Donald started at No 10 in both South African tests in 2009 in the absence of Dan Carter while he recovered from an achilles rupture. And while he has nothing but respect for the scale of the challenge, then and now, he does see a potential upside for the All Blacks.
“I think it’s the best place to be in,” Donald, who played 23 tests between 2008 and ’11, told Stuff. “Things are down in the dumps at the moment, but you’ve still got guys there who have beaten South Africa in South Africa. I don’t think they’ll be daunted by it, but will know it’s going to be as tough as it gets.
“It should be exciting for them. As a backs-to-the-wall scenario, you don’t get any bigger, but it’s bloody do-able. There are parts of the New Zealand game that will always trouble the Springboks, and if they don’t get their kicking game perfect, and it doesn’t flow on to their defense being able to set, all of a sudden a big part of their game is gone. “
Muliaina, a 100-test World Cup-winner, sees these twin tests in the republic as almost a free swing for an All Blacks side that has lost four of its last five, is fresh off dropping its first home series in 28 years and is copping a pasting from critics and fans alike.
“We haven’t seen anything like this where they’ve dropped two coaches midway through a season,” he noted. “They have to stay tight, and aligned. I like the way Fozzie has come out so assertive in what he wants now… but you’ve still got to put out a game-plan that everyone believes in.
“The key thing is they don’t listen to the outside noise, and that’s really hard when you’re under the pump. This is a good thing. They’re going to the hardest place to tour, but the most satisfying when you win, and they’re away from home where they’re criticized most.
“They’ve also got to work out what they’re struggling with. Where I’m sitting, they’ve just got too much content and they’re unsure about how they want to play, which is perhaps what’s confusing their key players. “
In terms of that ’09 visit against a Boks side that had won the World Cup in 2007 and defeated the LIons earlier that year, Muliaina and Donald offered valuable insight into the extent of a decidedly similar task facing Sam Cane and his men over the next fortnight.
Muliana remembers the All Blacks being under pressure after dropping a home test to France and also being down key frontliners for the trip.
“South Africa were at the peak of their powers. They had dominated in Super Rugby. They’d found a game-plan that effectively was kick the ball accurately, chase it and put pressure on teams to make a mistake. You know going over there to expect a physical battle, an intense environment, a big buildup, but now they had the game-plan, and kicking game, to put us under so much pressure.
“It’s sink or swim. You’ve got to be in it for the whole 80 minutes – one mistake, one missed high ball and they lift to another level, and when they’re riding in confidence they make you pay. A lot is talked about how the All Blacks can put 20 points on you in a flash, and these guys are the same. They feast off their crowd, off opportunity … man, they’re a different beast over there. “
The other abiding memory Muliaina has of those two tests, where the All Blacks were undone by a Jaque Fourie try against the run of play in Pretoria, and a Morne Steyn 31-point masterclass in Durban, was the unerring nature of the South Africans.
“They do it so well and their trust in the game-plan is patient and relentless. It might not be working for the first 60 minutes, but they just keep going… You see it coming, the bombs, the chasers, it’s talked about all week, but you’ve still got to deal with it, “
Donald vividly recalls Bloemfontein, but his recollection of Durban is more hazy after copping an early knee to the head from Bakkies Botha while making a clearing kick (he was eventually replaced in the 61st minute).
“We were in the heartland of Afrikaans country, and she was an electric atmosphere,” he said of the Bloem opener. “We hung in there, and at one stage late in the second half you felt like we were going to steal this after being on the back foot all day. Then Fourie got that try off a dropped ball and that sealed it. “
The 2011 World Cup hero, plucked from the side of the river whitebaiting to help land the global prize for his country, remembers the Boks being so good at the high kick game that the All Blacks quickly resolved to adopt their own version of it.
“They were bombing the hell out of us with their centers Fourie and de Villiers smacking you on the perfectly timed 28-meter kicks… it almost exposed our lack of attention to high-ball catching. Coming back from that trip, Mick Byrne became very central to the coaching as far as the catch, escorting and blocking chasers. “
But 2009 also offers a glimpse of hope for these All Blacks. They lost four times that year, but Muliana recalls the team rampaging through an end-of-year tour that would lay the foundation for a turnaround sweep against the Boks in 2010 and eventually the 2011 World Cup triumph.
“We needed to change, and part of that was not absorbing what they were going to bring,” he said. “It was about attacking their biggest strengths, their lineout, their big men, and trying to disrupt their kicking game. That helped us in turn to play our game. “
For Donald the adversity faced in the republic was something to treasure.
“Hands down it’s the toughest assignment in rugby. From the moment you hope all your luggage shows up at Jo’burg airport, the world is against you. They’re a wonderful people outside of the bright lights, a lot have become great mates, but you put a Springbok jersey on them, they’re already about 6’8, and they become 7’8.
“It was pretty cool, back to back against the world’s best team in 2009. It’s daunting, but you’d give your right arm to be part of it again.”
The 2009 All Blacks in South Africa
July 25, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein: South Africa 28 (Ruan Pienaar, Jaque Fourie tries; Pienaar pen; Frans Steyn 2 pen; Morne Steyn 3 pen), All Blacks 19 (Conrad Smith trey; Stephen Donald 4 pen, con). Ht: 14-3.
August 1, Kings Park, Durban: South Africa 31 (Morne Steyn try; Steyn 8 pen, con), All Blacks 19 (Isaac Ross try; Stephen Donald 3 pen, con; Luke McAlister pen). Ht: 22-13.
2022 All Blacks v South Africa, Rugby Championship
First test: Saturday, August 6, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit – kickoff 5.05pm local (Sunday Aug 7, 3.05am NZT)
Second test: Saturday, August 13, Ellis Park, Johannesburg – kickoff 5.05pm local (Sunday Aug 14, 3.05am NZT)