Nestled in the rolling countryside of White River, a rural town on the outskirts of the city they once called Nelspruit, now Mbombela, sits the Ingwenyama Conference and Sport Resort. Located on a picturesque estate, a comparative stone’s throw from the fringes of the vast Kruger National Park, it’s part sanctuary, part oasis.
This week it is also home to a sporting team under siege, a perfect place for the All Blacks to hole up while they lick their wounds from the history-making home series defeat to Irelandand regain strength for two mighty battles ahead against the world champion Springboks.
This is, in case you haven’t been paying attention, a difficult time to be an All Black. Once the rugby planet’s mightiest team, consistently atop the world rankings, collecting test victories in indecent quantities, the side has fallen on tough times. After the 2-1 series defeat to the Irish – the first time they have dropped a multi-game matchup at home in 28 years – the outfit New Zealand Rugby constantly tell us is one of the world’s premium sporting brands has now lost four of its last five, with no respite in sight.
Up next are a Springboks crew at, or near, the peak of their powers. They won their third World Cup (to match the All Blacks’ tally in two fewer tournament appearances) nearly three years ago, and they continue to operate at an extremely high level despite major disadvantages in geography, finance and access to players, and having effectively a foot in both hemispheres.
The Boks, as they’re known, are big, brutal, efficient and deliciously committed. They are not a team you want to be playing when your confidence is at a low ebb, your form seems to have deserted you and it seems like the world is baying for your blood.
This is the scenario facing Ian Foster’s All Blacks this week as they tick away preparations for the first of back-to-back test matches against the South Africans at Mbombela Stadium on late Saturday afternoon local time (Sunday 3.05am NZT).
It’s why, in so many ways, Ingwenyama, with its relative isolation, with its purpose-built sporting facilities (for the 2010 football World Cup), with its multiple barriers to the hustling, bustling world outside, is perfect for these backs-to -the-wall Blacks. They are holed up, gathering their forces and ready to break the siege that has seemingly surrounded them.
“It’s certainly different,” said skipper Sam Cane when asked if the isolated environment helped the team. “I think it helps in the sense that some days we could be spending up to an hour and a half on the bus to and from training and gym sessions. It’s all on site, and it’s been good for us. It’s an awesome facility, and we’re lucky to be here.”
What’s more, the way the All Blacks have set themselves up at Ingwenyama further removes them from the outside world. Barriers are set up, with security on hand, preventing other guests at the resort from entering their zone, which includes the massive gymnasium, the training field, their own restaurant and several conference rooms. Even the pesky media staying at the facility are denied access, which must please the All Blacks a lot.
Right now their own company suits these All Blacks just fine. It is them against the world, and it must seem like the world has their number.
Foster is a coach under immense pressure. Somehow he has survived the first purge post-Ireland, when his two senior assistants were both unceremoniously dumpedbut while he was traveling to the republic his boss at NZ Rugby notably refused to endorse him beyond these twin tests.
He has been spectacularly unsuccessful, losing seven of his 24 tests thus far, winning 16, with a draw. Worryingly, their record against fellow top-5 teams in the world is an abysmal 2-5. And on his watch, the All Blacks have given every impression of being a declining force desperately searching for their mojo.
Barring a dramatic turnaround over the next fortnight, Foster’s grip on the coach’s job looks tenuous.
Others, too, are under the gun. Skipper Cane has copped his fair share of criticism, both for his leadership and level of play, and he conceded this week in White River that he had gotten somewhat feral. “It’s probably harder on loved ones,” he said of a strata of comment he tries to stay away from.
Other senior, normally reliable All Blacks have struggled for form, and, really, through July only the incomparable Ardie Savea and the dynamic Will Jordan could be truly proud of their body of work. There has been widespread recognition from the players since the Wellington defeat to Ireland that if this thing is to be turned around, the ball is very much in their court.
So, in a country where the siege was once an important warfare tactic, the All Blacks are very much a team which has circled the wagons, drawn themselves in tight, and determined to come out firing when they have to.
On Wednesday, the players’ day off on the Lowveld of Mpumalanga, some took to the golf course for their customary hit, but many headed to nearby Kruger National Park where they hoped to see Africa’s famed Big Five, just days out from battling another pretty impressive Big Five in the Boks forward pack.
They would have enjoyed their time in a spectacular environment where you can round a corner, and there can stand a 6000kg elephant, or a giraffe as tall as a building, or, if you’re really lucky, a pride of lions blocking your way .
And at the end of their excursion they would have returned to Ingwenyama, their heads filled with mind-blowing memories, their camera rolls overflowing with images that will be passed round loved ones with delight, and they would have recircled the wagons.
On Saturday it all changes. That’s when they must demonstrate that their week in Camp All Blacks, fortifying themselves, restocking the armoury, rethinking the battle-plan, has been time productively spent.
On Saturday, at Mbombela Stadium, the All Blacks must uncircle the wagons and come out firing. Reality awaits, and defeat is frankly unthinkable.