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Conquering Ellis Park will be tough

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Matt Manukia     04 Oct 2013     Getty Images

Eleven touring parties have made the long trek to the ground since it was opened in 1928. Only three tasted victory.

Tana Umaga led the last expedition to the Johannesburg stronghold, and nine years later memories of that 40-26 defeat, and a hat-trick by his opposite, Marius Joubert, are still tough to handle.

On Sunday Steve Hansen's squad must overcome that poor record in the Rugby Championship decider against a Springbok outfit still hurting from the treatment it received at Eden Park last month.

Bismarck du Plessis' controversial red card is understood to be a major source of motivation, and while Flip van der Merwe's suspension is unlikely to bring back the 'justice' armbands seen in the 2009 British and Irish Lions series finale, it only adds to the drama.

It won't come as a surprise if there is a target on blindside Liam Messam, who was abused on social media after his alleged 'dive' led to Du Plessis' second yellow card and an automatic red.

Those elements should make the infamous drive to the stadium, through hoards of fans who harass the team bus, even more unsettling but Umaga says it's what lies behind the stadium gates that will separate the men from the boys.

"You get it as soon as you drive in and when you run out there it's like four walls are slamming you full of screaming Springbok supporters," he said.

"They're very close to you as well. Some of our grounds [in New Zealand] have spaces between the field and the grand stand; over there they're right up next to you and if you're on the reserves bench it's even worse.

"There's a lot of animosity towards the players and it won't be any easier for the All Blacks after what happened to Bismarck du Plessis. There's still a bit of feeling with that."

Hansen's silent prayers for Richie McCaw, who has not played a Test at Ellis Park, have been answered. His return from a medial ligament injury is a huge boost.

One major concern is the advantage South Africa has in the scrum. Tighthead Owen Franks, who has been replaced by Charlie Faumuina, was fed to 'The Beast' Tendai Mtawarira in Auckland and the struggles continued in Argentina last week.

If the home side is able to assert its dominance early and put the All Blacks under pressure, then 62,000 of the most passionate fans in rugby will make it extremely difficult to swing the momentum.

"The crowd really lifts the Springboks if they do get in front," said Umaga.

"The All Blacks have to be on top of their game and they can't have any inconsistencies. Because as soon as they have one and make one error, they'll swoop on it.

"I'd say they'll be worked up into a frenzy by the time they get to the park, just by those around them and by the way Heyneke Meyer has been going."

Craig Dowd, a veteran of 60 Tests, featured in the last All Blacks side to conquer Ellis Park.

In 1997 John Hart and Sean Fitzpatrick commanded over a thrilling 35-32 win, the first at the ground since Joel Stransky broke New Zealand hearts in the World Cup final two years prior.

Dowd assured the All Blacks can expect a vastly improved South African effort.

"You wondered whether they had put up bonus money for the Springboks to perform there. They actually played better at Ellis Park, for whatever reason, than anywhere else," he said.

"The World Cup final in 1995 was the hardest game I ever played against South Africa. They grow an arm and a leg at that Stadium. It's like us at Eden Park.

"To win a Test match at Ellis Park is massive."

Immense pressure is set to be placed on the likes of Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith, whose rushed pass in the face of oncoming defenders led to Dan Carter's awkward tangle with Du Plessis.

History is filled with examples of the questionable tactics used to 'take out' the All Blacks' key men. Carter and McCaw have been on the receiving end more than once, while Byron Kelleher probably won't remember Victor Matfield's forearm that rendered him unconscious in 2005.

"That's just something the All Blacks will expect, they know what it's going to be like when they get there," Umaga said.

"But I'm sure Steve Hansen and Ian Foster have found ways to deal with that. We're an experienced bunch now so I'd say that wouldn't affect them too much."