JOHANNESBURG • South Africa will host world champions New Zealand at Ellis Park today in the latest clash between the two top-ranked rugby nations, a rivalry that invariably delivers drama.
Last year, at the same stadium, a monster last-minute penalty goal by replacement fly-half Patrick Lambie earned the Springboks a rare recent victory.
It was only the second loss suffered by the No. 1-ranked All Blacks since they won the 2011 World Cup in Auckland, and ended a run of five consecutive victories over their greatest rivals.
Despite home advantage and the backing of most in an expected sell-out 62,000 crowd, the Springboks start as the underdogs in the Rugby Championship second-round showdown.
South Africa surrendered a 13-point lead when losing at the death in Australia last Saturday, a day after New Zealand cruised to a five-try, 39-18 victory over Argentina in Christchurch.
With the southern hemisphere tournament trimmed from six rounds to three because the World Cup kicks off on Sept 18 in England, the All Blacks could clinch a fourth consecutive title this weekend.
A bonus-point New Zealand victory and a home win for Argentina over Australia in which no bonus points are secured would give the title-holders an unassailable six-point advantage with one round left.
When the Test begins as dusk envelops South African financial hub Johannesburg, rival coaches Heyneke Meyer and Steve Hansen will have one eye on the Championship and the other on the World Cup.
All Blacks handler Hansen has rung the changes when announcing three starting line-ups, with the visit to Johannesburg preceded by a 25-16 Test win in Samoa and the pounding of the Pumas.
The coach has chosen three right wingers, three centre partnerships, three scrum-halves and also three lock pairings.
The reservoir of All Blacks talent is so deep that first-choice fly-half Dan Carter and centre-cum-offload magician Sonny Bill Williams have been rested for the Ellis Park game.
"We have got to develop combinations and versatility," stressed Hansen. "Facing South Africa will be a pressure situation and there is no better place than Johannesburg to get answers about players."
Meyer has plenty on his mind, including the timing of substitutions, tactical kicking and a promising but raw centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende.
Converted full-back Kriel has one cap and de Allende four while rival centres Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu boast 180 Test appearances between them.
But Meyer has faith in his "Bok babes", saying: "I would not have selected them if I did not believe they can do the job".