New Zealand have arguably the best openside flankers in world rugby, but the loss of captain Richie McCaw to injury is still a "big blow" for the All Blacks, according to South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer.
McCaw hobbled off the pitch when 125kg prop Charlie Faumuina fell on his left leg during Saturday's win over Argentina in Hamilton and may not play another match in the southern hemisphere tournament.
With McCaw sidelined, Sam Cane is expected to take his place for this weekend's Rugby Championship showdown against the resurgent Springboks at Eden Park, a match between two undefeated sides that could go a long way to deciding the title.
"Obviously, I've got a lot of respect for Richie. He's probably one of the best players that have ever played the game," Meyer said in Auckland yesterday. "They've still got great leaders, [backrower] Kieran Read and a lot of other guys as well, but there's only one Richie McCaw and definitely it will be a big blow for them.
"One thing I know about New Zealand rugby, is they have probably the best opensides around. [Cane's] a quality player. If he's an openside in Super Rugby, being a New Zealander he's a quality player. They've won a lot without Richie as well and they won't change their game plan, so we know what to expect."
The Springboks arrive in Auckland in impressive form after a 38-12 demolition of the Wallabies in Brisbane, their biggest win on Australian soil and first at Lang Park in eight attempts. The Springboks face a huge task to upset the world champions and title holders at Eden Park, though, where they have not beaten the hosts since 1937.
"I truly believe this is going to be the ultimate challenge, tougher than we've ever had before. But it's a great challenge and I love being in New Zealand," Meyer said. "That's the mindset and can't wait to get onto the field.
"We know we're probably, totally underdogs, but we like that tag and so we feel that we're in a win-win situation and we can't wait to get going."
The Springboks came through the Brisbane match without any major injury concerns and with their players having recovered from jetlag after long-haul flights to Argentina and Australia, would be ripe to take on the All Blacks, 45-year-old Meyer said.
The former Bulls coach forecast "war-like" conditions at the breakdown where the Springboks' fierce back row of Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw will aim to outmuscle Cane, number eight Read and either the inexperienced Steven Luatua or the more seasoned Liam Messam on the blindside.
Meyer dismissed a suggestion that the big Springboks pack, which bullied Australia's forwards, might have an edge over the All Blacks.
"They always lift themselves for South Africa and they've got a really good scrum. They've always had a great scrum," Meyer said. "There's no weaknesses in that team.
"The thing they've improved is that their kicking game really wasn't up to scratch a few years ago, and fielding high kicks. But they've got a very good tactical game and what they showed against France, they probably kicked the most in the world.
"They can play an open running game, they can play a tactical game … so we know we're up for the ultimate challenge."