Conrad Smith has seen most things Test rugby has to offer during a 92-cap career but for the New Zealand centre the thrill of facing South Africa never fades.
The two countries, for much of the last hundred years the game’s leading countries, will meet again in a World Cup semi-final at Twickenham on Saturday.
But long before the advent of the World Cup, which they have both won twice, with South Africa defeating New Zealand on home soil in the 1995 final, the real measure of rugby success for the two sides was how they fared against each other.
And for Smith, a World Cup-winner in New Zealand four years ago, the fact they now meet annually in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship has merely increased his respect for the Springboks.
“They’re a special opponent. I grew up in the apartheid era when Australia were our traditional foe but with South Africa coming back into it (from international exile), it was something I didn’t know as a child, but I was soon aware of how big the rivalry was,” explained Smith.
“They are our ultimate rival, not to say anything about all the other great nations that we play, but most guys would agree there’s something special about playing them so meeting them in a semi is going to be extra-special,” the 34-year-old midfielder added.
“They have a respect for the game and each other and the game’s treated a lot differently in the two countries.
“I think that’s why we are able to play each other, walk off the field and shake hands and five or 10 minutes after a game we’ll be chatting away to them.”
It was a point echoed by South Africa back-row forward Duane Vermeulen, who said: “There’s a massive rivalry.
“You play against each other week-on-week and you tend to get to know the guys a bit better. That’s where the respect grows.
“It’s nice to see the guys, but we’re going to bash each other for 80 minutes but afterwards definitely a good chat and maybe a beer like Skulla (Schalk Brits) always says,” he added.
– Consistent –
New Zealand stormed into the last four with a 62-13 thrashing of France in Cardiff last weekend while, by contrast, South Africa — who suffered a shock loss to Japan in their World Cup opener — were pushed hard before seeing off Wales 23-19 at Twickenham.
And Smith said his experience of the Springboks told him to forget about a second straight New Zealand rout at this tournament.
“With South Africa there is that consistent level of physicality but also performance. We never seem to catch the other team on an off-night, which sometimes happens with other teams and you get bigger margins.”
The All Blacks have had the upper hand, however, in recent meetings against the Springboks, winning seven of their last nine encounters.
But, significantly, several members of the South Africa side likely to take the field at Twickenham this weekend do know what it is like to beat New Zealand, having been involved in a 27-25 win at Ellis Park, Johannesburg just over a year ago.
South Africa prop Tendai Mtawarira, who played in that match and is set feature again on Saturday, tried to put the results into context by saying: “Obviously as Springboks, we always pride ourselves on being the best.
“So it’s obviously quite disappointing we didn’t get to win more games over them over the last four years.
“But now is a new challenge and whatever happened in the past does not count.
“It’s a World Cup semi-final and whoever wants it the most is the one that will take it.”