We reveal our best bet for the opening game in Pool B of the Rugby World Cup.
The opening game in Pool B is arguably the most eagerly anticipated of the group stages, as defending world champions New Zealand meet South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday morning.
The All Blacks enter Japan with a few question marks, after an indifferent Rugby Championship campaign where they drew at home with the Springboks and suffered a record defeat to arch-rivals Australia.
The main talking point has been the switch of dual World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett to full-back, to accommodate the goal kicking of Crusaders fly-half Richie Mo'unga. It seems a very un-New Zealand move to make such a major tactical change this close to a World Cup (this is only the fourth time this combination has played) but make no mistake Mo'unga is an excellent number 10.
This move has also meant that Ben Smith, one of the world’s finest players for the last decade, is only on the bench – leaving an internationally inexperienced but exciting back three of Barrett, Sevu Reece and George Bridge.
By contrast there have been no major shake ups for Rassie Erasmus (barring Aphiwe Dyantyi’s drugs ban) and the Springboks have been building towards this tournament very nicely, after winning this year’s Rugby Championship in fine style.
Erasmus knows his side have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the Kiwis and will trust his game plan built around gigantic ball carriers, controlled kicking and a sprinkling of stardust – look out for Cheslin Kolbe.
One major factor could be referee Jerome Garces, who neither team have particularly fond memories of.
The Frenchman was in charge when Japan caused the biggest shock in World Cup history beating the Boks four years ago. He is also the only man to show the All Blacks two red cards in the last 50+ years (Sonny Bill Williams and Scott Barrett) so he isn’t afraid of making the big calls – but let’s hope his impact is minimal.
Considering the scores between the two sides stand at 82-82 over the past three meetings, I can’t see how South Africa can have a seven point start. A tightly contested game in the rain could come down to forward power and goal-kicking so while a South African victory could be on the cards, taking the +7 on the handicap is my bet of the game.