There are older, more localised and openly hostile rivalries but in pure rugby terms it’s hard to top South Africa versus New Zealand.
The Springboks and the All Blacks are the most recognisable brands in the game, have been playing each other since 1921, and nowhere else in the world does rugby union hold such an elevated position in the national sporting life.
Both are two-time world champions and meet for the 91st time at Twickenham today in the first of this weekend’s World Cup semi-finals.
While the holders have made serene progress to the last four, the Boks have had to haul themselves out of the hole they found themselves in Brighton when they were stunned by Japan on the opening weekend.
The All Blacks’ brutal demolition of France in the quarters further firmed up their favourites status but, as South Africa showed against battling Wales last weekend, they are unlikely to buckle as meekly.
The Springboks have a winning 2-1 World Cup record over the Kiwis, although one of those was the 1999 third place play-off, the other, of course, being the iconic triumph in the 1995 final.
While the sight of the famous black strips can be enough to strike fear into most nations – Scotland have never beaten New Zealand at any level of the game – the South Africans have no such psychological barrier. Indeed, up until their banishment from international sport due to the travesty of the apartheid regime, the Springboks had the upper hand in the all-time head-to-head.
New Zealand have looked good. Very good. But history tells us that even the most seemingly unstoppable All Black juggernaut can find itself careering off the road just short of the final destination. For that to happen today you feel that South Africa must turn a trademark physicality which has already been at bone-crunching levels this tournament up yet another notch.
Springbok legend Bobby Skinstad put it even more bluntly. “Out-smashing the All Blacks is the only way we can beat them. We can’t out-run them,” said the former back-row forward who was part of the 2007 World Cup-winning squad.
“The only way we can win is traditional powerhouse South African rugby and the players will need to be psyched up for that, they will be really excited about this game.
“They’ll love the clash and will want to smash into the All Blacks. More than anything, they’ll just be pleased to have a chance to do that.
“We have to go really hard in the forwards for a long time before we can look to go wide. The All Blacks will go wide earlier than us. It’s going to be a massive clash. If the Springboks are on song they’ll be in with a shout.
“South Africa will be thinking ‘we’ve pushed the All Blacks close before, so let’s prepare for fire and brimstone. Let’s take them on and march on to the goal’.
“New Zealand looked special against France, but France let them play like that. Maybe they’ve laid their World Cup bogey against French teams to rest now.
“But New Zealand are also a southern hemisphere side that we see a lot of.
“We play them twice a year so they won’t be able to outfox the Springboks as easily as they did the French, but they’re still a powerful team.”
All Blacks stand-off Dan Carter, meanwhile, is ready for yet another titanic showdown with the old southern hemisphere foes and described today as a “do-or-die match”.
Carter added: “You often get asked the question who the toughest opposition is, and it does vary, but consistently throughout my career South Africa have been right up there.
“The way they play the game, they are extremely physical, and you know that once you’ve played them, you will be sore for a few days. Nothing will change this weekend.
“It’s a different ball-game when you are playing South Africa in a World Cup play-off game. It means so much more. It’s a huge challenge.”
Carter, meanwhile, has hailed his fellow All Blacks superstar Richie McCaw as “a legend of the game” ahead of McCaw reaching another career landmark.
McCaw will captain New Zealand for a World Cup record 12th time in today’s game. Earlier this year, McCaw became the most-capped player in history, with the Springboks clash set to be his 147th Test. He has also skippered the All Blacks on more than 100 occasions.
And Carter, who will quit international rugby after the World Cup to join wealthy French club Racing 92, believes McCaw is one of a kind. He said: “Richie leads the team fantastically well. He is an inspiration.”