South Africa and New Zealand clash Saturday in a Rugby Championship dead rubber, but the pursuit of team and individual records should ensure an uncomprising struggle for supremacy.
The Test will be played three days after All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith was suspended, then sent home over a Christchurch airport toilet tryst last month with a mystery woman.
Tearful Smith quit Durban Thursday having admitted he had made a “huge mistake”, and his absence allows TJ Perenara, who started in a win over Argentina last weekend, to retain his place.
“I’ve made a huge mistake, a huge error in judgment,” admitted Smith as he left the reigning world champions.
A victory for New Zealand at Kings Park stadium in the Indian Ocean port will equal the top-tier nations’ world record of 17 consecutive wins.
The All Blacks created the benchmark in 1969 and matched it in 2014, with South Africa equalling the feat in between.
Another goal for the three-time world champions is to finish a Rugby Championship season with a maximum 30 points from six bonus-point triumphs.
With two bonus-point wins over Australia and Argentina and one over South Africa, it seems an achievable goal at a ground where they have won three of five post-Springbok isolation Tests.
The great All Blacks-Springboks rivalry was suspended between 1982 and 1991 because of international opposition to white minority rule in South Africa.
New Zealand came closest to the 30-point mark in the southern hemisphere championship three seasons ago when they collected 28.
South African Bryan Habana, a winger nearing the end of an illustrious career, and New Zealander Beauden Barrett, a rising fly-half star, are eyeing individual records.
Habana, 33, needs four more tries to overtake the 69-try Test record of retired Japanese Daisuke Ohata.
Barrett, 25, the leading Rugby Championship scorer this season with 65 points, requires 24 more to surpass the 88 scored by Springbok Morne Steyn in 2013.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said the desire to create history was one of the factors driving a team that last suffered defeat in August 2015, losing 27-19 to Australia in Sydney.
“Chasing records is interesting — it is about challenging ourselves to be the best we can,” said the assistant to Steve Hansen.
New Zealand have changed four of the side that began the 36-17 triumph over Argentina with two new flankers partnering captain and No 8 Kieran Read in the back row.
Fit-again Jerome Kaino and Matt Todd replace Ardie Savea and Liam Squire, while lock Sam Whitelock returns in place of Patrick Tuipulotu.
The other change is on the left wing with Waisake Naholo, who pulled a hamstring in the opening round win over Australia, recalled in place of Julian Savea.
“We have been able to bring fresh players back into the group, which is vital at this time of the year and allows us to continue to grow some depth,” explained Hansen.
South Africa, second in the table 15 points behind New Zealand, have made two injury-enforced changes to the side that started a laboured victory over Australia in Pretoria.
Centre Damian de Allende and scrum-half Faf de Klerk, dropped due to poor form, have been given further chances because Jesse Kriel and Rudy Paige are sidelined.
“The All Blacks will be a huge test,” conceded coach Allister Coetzee. “They are the number one side in the world and are showing great form at the moment.”
It will be the last home match for Springboks skipper and hooker Adriaan Strauss, who retires from Test rugby after a November tour to Europe.
© 2016 AFP