New Zealand v South Africa, Rugby Championship
Smith: 'biggest challenge since World Cup'
September 9, 2013
Conrad Smith is preparing for a tough encounter with the Springboks © Getty Images
The All Blacks are about to encounter their first genuine challenge of the year.
Not since Richie McCaw's weary touring party fell to England last December have the world champions looked out of their comfort zone. Les Bleus used their trip Down Under to "learn" and build experience, while the Wallabies failed to get out of second gear on both sides of the Tasman.
Take away Francis Saili's faux pa in Hamilton and you'll find Argentina produced just six points. Six convincing wins, by an average of 17 points, with six new players introduced to Test rugby in the process.
It's been pleasing to watch but the players know there is a need for quality matches to build character and leadership. Conrad Smith is certain the Springboks are the side to do just that. Heyneke Meyer's men arrived in Auckland boasting an historic win over the Wallabies in Brisbane which extended their record to nine straight Test wins.
If this turns out to be anything like the last encounter in Johannesburg, then Steve Hansen can expect to have a few more battle-hardened troops ready to be deployed in any situation. In a Man-of-the-Match performance, Kieran Read was inspirational as the All Blacks overcame a 12-16 half-time deficit by scoring 20 unanswered points. It reaffirmed the No 8's ability to stand up in big moments and in November he was awarded the captaincy for the first time against Italy.
"These games can be [crucial] particularly when one team takes a lot away from it. You can build real momentum towards a World Cup that's a few years away," Smith said. "We're certainly viewing it as the biggest challenge since the World Cup so we're prepared for a big game and I know they will be as well."
Despite the loss of McCaw, Hansen will on Thursday name a near full strength side with inside-centre Ma'a Nonu bypassing last week's win against Argentina to recover from an ankle injury. His midfield combination with Smith will be key to containing the threat of Springbok captain Jean de Villiers and impressive newcomer JJ Englebrecht in the No. 13 jumper. Smith has vague memories of his last encounter with the 24-year-old, whose hard running style rendered him unconscious during a Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld in May.
"We always respect whoever we're playing but it didn't take much to look at that Springbok performance last week, and in the weeks previous, to know they're playing some pretty good footy," Smith said. "And if we're not on the mark then we're going to come second. That strikes a bit of fear and hopefully it brings out the best in us."
Heyneke Meyer was quick to slam critics of South Africa's kick-chase style after they ended 42 years of hurt in Brisbane and registered the biggest winning margin against Australia at home. His backs proved that scoring tries is still well within their capabilities and that any mistakes by the opposition will be punished.
"When they're really playing expansively and chancing their arm a bit that we know we're in for a real battle," Smith said. "You know you're always going to get physicality with the Springboks but when they're really well with the ball in hand they pose a real threat."
Without McCaw, the All Blacks will again call upon Chiefs flanker Sam Cane to fill the void.
"I suppose we can take some comfort from the fact that we've dealt with it before," Smith said. "Earlier this year we had some games without him and we learned to live without him and in the past he's missed the odd game with injury. It's a big blow but I think it's one we're well prepared to deal with."