Preview: All Blacks keep Boks at bay
July 5, 2008
Graham Henry is preparing for his toghest test as coach of the All Blacks © Getty Images
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has been forced to remind the rugby public of a pretty big test to be played this weekend - one he reckons is the toughest challenge of his five years in charge.
A mouth watering showdown with the world champion Springboks at close to full strength was relegated in status today as controversy swirled around the troubles of halfback Jimmy Cowan along with the untimely introduction of some new rules.
One of the more fascinating Tri-Nations series in recent memory will kick off at Westpac Stadium and Henry didn't hold back when describing the mountain in front of a team he and his coaching colleagues are still moulding into shape.
"I think it's a massive challenge, maybe the biggest challenge this group of people have faced in the five years that we've been together," Henry said.
"It'll maybe bring the best out of us and we're hoping to give them a decent sort of game... I don't think you're going to get a bigger test match for the All Blacks."
The importance placed on the game is emphasised by the selection of lock Ali Williams even though he is a day-to-day proposition to play his 50th test after suffering a sprained ankle against England in Christchurch.
Williams watched training yesterday and ran gently by himself today.
Assistant coach Steve Hansen said two-test lock Anthony Boric was ready to be slotted alongside Brad Thorn if world class forward Williams can't prove he is ready.
"I wouldn't say he's 100 percent but he's working his way towards that," Hansen said.
"He's pretty confident that he's going to be right.
"He'll train for a limited amount of time tomorrow and we'll build on that on Thursday.
"Any test match, when you've a guy who's your chief lineout forward and he's played 50 test matches, it's important to have him."
There are four changes from the second England test.
Conrad Smith returns at centre despite Richard Kahui's fine debut there while fullback Mils Muliaina comes back for Leon MacDonald in a tight call.
Prop Tony Woodcock will make his first test start of the year after recovering from injury and comes in for loosehead Neemia Tialata.
Jerome Kaino is restored at No 8 with new captain Rodney So'oialo shifting to the flank in place of injured skipper Richie McCaw.
It was confirmed later today that Cowan had kept his place on the bench after sitting through a lengthy misconduct hearing.
He has been charged by police for three recent alcohol-related incidents and the NZRU has ordered him to stop drinking, issued a $3000 fine and told him to undergo alcohol counselling.
There was also some consternation surrounding the return to the Experimental Law Variations that players from both sides trialled during the Super 14.
Saturday's test will also see the introduction of two more new laws which have cast the test into the guinea pig category.
Teams are entitled to put any number of players into the lineout and mauls can now be legally collapsed.
Both sides voiced concern about safety aspects of the maul change and uncertainty about the potential impact of both rules.
Henry agreed it was unfortunate that such radical changes would debut in a major match.
"It's the unknown... nobody's played them before," Henry said.
"I can't really answer the question (of impact) until we go through the process and play the game and have a number of games with these particular laws."
Henry said the lineout law was particularly significant and threatened to create farcical scenes.
"It's going to be interesting isn't it? They could have 15 players in to our three (in the lineout)," he said.
"I think they were brought in to help the referee, they don't have to count the numbers in the lineout, which has always been a frustration.
"Whether it has a positive effect on the game, we'll have to wait and see."
Meanwhile, McCaw was to join the All Blacks squad later this week to act in a support role.
He was currently in Christchurch sporting a moon boot on his injured ankle which will sideline him for at least six weeks.
The World Cup locked in South Africa's trophy cabinet is both a blessing and curse, captain John Smit says as his rugby team get set to scratch their 10-year All Blacks itch.
Without success in New Zealand since 1998, the Springboks are determined to end that drought in the opening Tri-Nations test here on Saturday and Smit hopes the momentum that carried them to last October's World Cup triumph can be maintained.
They are on a 13-test winning streak and more than half the starting 15 named today started in the World Cup final defeat of England in Paris.
Two backs and, importantly, six forwards are back for a test at Westpac Stadium that is increasingly shaping as a forward struggle given the wintry weather in Wellington this week.
Hooker Smit is one of them and he felt the arrival of new coach Peter de Villiers in place of Jake White could only benefit the Springboks as they seek to expand on the magic formula of eight months ago.
"The confidence we gained out of the World Cup is certainly quite relevant to how we're training and how we're playing," Smit said today.
"The exciting part is that it is a new era, we've got a new coach ... he's come in with some fresh ideas and put some challenges towards us as well.
"We had a four-year run with Jake and pretty much got into the same way of thinking and doing things.
"It's been wonderful to have a few new ideas thrown at us and a lot more challenges put to us in terms of how much further we want to go and how much better we want to get."
Holding the World Cup had other implications, with Smit believing South Africa would now be constantly targeted.
That would apply particularly to the All Blacks, whose World Cup quarterfinal exit meant they never faced their great rivals in France.
"Every team that's going to play against us for the next four years is going to want to take away what we've achieved and what we've worked hard for," Smit said.
"It's the responsibility we have upon our shoulders after the form that we've shown over the last 12-18 months to take that form into tests against the big nations."
Nine starters are retained from their 26-0 win over Italy two weeks ago and there are five players who will have started their first four tests of the year, including twin home defeats of Wales.
They are fullback Conrad Jantjes, second five-eighth Jean de Villiers, first five-eighth Butch James, flanker Juan Smith and lock Bakkies Botha.
Number eight Joe van Niekerk is a surprise inclusion, having only appeared once this year, off the bench against Italy.
The 47-test veteran was named ahead of dynamic but less experienced options Pierre Spies and Ryan Kankowski in a loose forward trio that also features Schalk Burger, also making his first test start of the year after overcoming injury.
The forward pack boasts a whopping 392 caps, including 118 between world class Bulls locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.
There is no place in the backline for two World Cup heroes, with fullback Percy Montgomery and utility Francois Steyn both on the reserves bench.
Steyn missed out to Sharks teammate Adrian Jacobs at centre, with Peter de Villiers today fending off suggestions that the diminutive but exciting Jacobs is a defensive weakness.
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Rudi Wulf, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Jerome Kaino, Rodney So'oialo (captain), Adam Thomson, Ali Willliams, Brad Thorn, Greg Somerville, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Neemia Tialata, Anthony Boric, Sione Lauaki, Jimmy Cowan, Stephen Donald, Leon MacDonald
South Africa: Conrad Jantjes, Odwa Ndungane, Adrian Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Ricky Januarie, Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, CJ van der Linde, John Smit (captain), Gurthro Steenkamp.
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Brian Mujati, Andries Bekker, Luke Watson, Bolla Conradie, Francois Steyn, Percy Montgomery
Referee: S. Dickinson
Touch Judges: M. Goddard, J. Leckie
TMO: G. Ayoub