Outside of a World Cup year you’d never think of a Springbok game against the All Blacks as a preparation for a bigger game against Scotland, but that is the reality this weekend.
The two teams that clash in a crucial Pool game in Marseille on the first Sunday of the 2023 Rugby World Cup are not alone in having been smart about choosing their last warmup opponents before the real thing starts just over a fortnight from now.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has spoken to the media in his country about the stylistic similarities between Saturday’s opponents at Murrayfield, Georgia, and South Africa. While obviously there is a big chasm between Georgia, ranked 11th in the world, and the Boks, who are eight positions higher, when it comes to class, the strength of the Georgian maul and set piece, their physicality plus the fact they are starting to grow other aspects of their game sets them up as a kind of mini-Boks.
But there's a similar method in what the other teams have chosen when it comes to this final warmup weekend before the World Cup. New Zealand for instance will have settled on the Boks as their ideal opponents two weeks ahead of their opening game against France because of the similarities between the hosts and the reigning World Cup champions. They do play similar games.
And France, for their part, will relish a chance to play against a team that prioritises tempo as much as their trans-Tasman rivals, the All Blacks do, when they face the Wallabies in their final game at Stade de France on Saturday night. Of course New Zealand are way ahead of Australia these days, but there are stylistic similarities given their geographic proximity to each other and their ongoing rivalry in both Super Rugby and the Bledisloe Cup.
Ireland aren’t playing Tonga first, but their choice of Samoa as opponents for this week may be with the later Pool clash with Tonga in mind. The two Pacific island teams have similar approaches to the game.
INTRIGUING FINALE TO WARMUPS
It all adds up to an intriguing finale to the warmup phase, with all the teams now under pressure to get it right and hit the straps if they want to take any momentum into their matches two weeks hence. There’s probably no team under more pressure than England (though Australia come close) at present after a warmup campaign that has been rutted in first gear from the off and has shown no signs of getting any better.
It goes without saying that one thing that their coach Steve Borthwick definitely won’t want is another in what has become a sequence of red cards when England host Fiji a day after the Boks and All Blacks play at the same Twickenham venue. Fiji are likely to bring some spectacle, as they always do, but it should be a drab affair compared to the fare likely to be dished up the previous night.
The Boks/All Black showdown is definitely the highlight of the weekend’s matches, and Bok coach Jacques Nienaber adequately explained his method in choosing the Kiwis as opponents at this juncture. The Scots are sometimes a small-time version of the All Blacks when it comes to how they play, although these days their fifth placed ranking amply illustrates how dangerous they have become.
TOWNSEND BRINGS OUT BIG ARTILLERY
We should take Nienaber and his players at face value when they say that they will only think of the World Cup after the All Black game, but that is unlikely to be the case with Scotland, who have their full strength team out for the Georgian clash and have sent assistant coach Brad Mooar, formerly part of the All Black coaching group, to London to watch his new team’s first World Cup opponents clash with his countrymen.
“I do believe Georgia is a great game for us and a great test,” Townsend told the Scottish media in the buildup to Saturday.
“Their biggest strengths are the scrum, maul and in contact. South Africa are one of the best teams in the world and their big strengths are also in the scrum, maul and contact. So, for the team, particularly the forwards, this will be a great test of what is coming.”
Townsend says he’s also mindful of something else that makes the Georgians similar to South Africa - they have started to grow their game to become a better and less predictable attacking force than they were, with some of their backline players honing their trade and their skills in the European competitions.
The Boks aren’t talking about the Scots yet, but the Scots are talking about the Boks, and they are making no secret of the fact they believe their opponents are much improved on the last time the teams met, which was in Edinburgh on the Boks’ 2021 end of year tour.
“They’ve definitely opened up their game, evolved it over the last 12 months,” said Townsend. “In the 2022 November tests that was a different South African team to the one we saw the year before. Against Ireland, France and England last November they were moving the ball much wider.”
FINAL RUGBY WORLD CUP WARMUP FIXTURES THIS WEEKEND
South Africa v New Zealand (London, Friday)
England v Fiji (London, Saturday)
Ireland v Samoa (Bayonne, Saturday)
Italy v Japan (Treviso, Saturday)
France v Australia (Paris, Saturday)
Scotland v Georgia (Edinburgh, Saturday)
Spain v Argentina (Madrid, Saturday)
Namibia v Vodacom Bulls (Windhoek, Saturday)
Chile v Argentina XV (Santiago, Saturday)