Let battle commence
July 8, 2010
South Africa's Victor Matfield and John Smit celebrate clinching the Tri-Nations with victory in Hamilton last year © Getty Images
New Zealand will launch their bid to reclaim the southern hemisphere crown against South Africa in Auckland on Saturday, in arguably the most important clash of this year's Tri-Nations.
The Springboks enter the game - the first of back-to-back meetings between the two sides - as defending champions and favourites to retain the title. A hat-trick of victories over the All Blacks last year laid the foundation for only their third Tri-Nations success with a thrilling away victory in Hamilton setting the seal on their triumph. But if they are to make a winning start to this year's battle they must re-write the record books again having not tasted victory at Eden Park since 1937.
New Zealand responded well to their humbling at the hands of the Boks in last year's competition but are under increasing pressure to reassert their dominance with the Rugby World Cup a little over a year away. The formbook suggests these two sides will meet in the same venue at the semi-final stage next year but unsurprisingly neither side could be lured into looking that far ahead when questioned this week, with the leading protagonists focused solely on the next 80 minutes. But don't be fooled - the result will have a huge impact on each side's preparations for the big one next year.
Having emerged from the All Whites' FIFA World Cup shadow, a victory for the All Blacks will remind New Zealand's sporting pubic that World Cup glory may well be within their grasp, albeit in a different sport, while success for the Springboks would further erase their hosts' aura of invincibility - significantly on the same pitch that will host the 2011 Rugby World Cup final.
With due respect to their northern hemisphere adversaries of recent weeks, this clash represents a major step up in class for both sides and that lack of high-level competition may explain why both teams appear some way from their best. South Africa, bolstered by the Bulls' latest Super 14 success, began the year in impressive form by sweeping Six Nations champions France to one side although the Grand Slammers' subsequent form would suggest they had already embarked on their summer holidays. The Springboks' performances also tailed off in back-to-back Tests against Italy but they remain an impressive side despite struggling to get out of second gear. The All Blacks are more of a work in progress but still had too much for Ireland and Wales in their recent meetings. At their free-flowing best they were easy on the eye but there remain concerns for head coach Graham Henry and Co. as they look to redress the southern hemisphere balance.
With so much at stake is was not surprising to see both sides opt for tried and tested with experience winning out over exciting new talent. The All Blacks will field their most experienced side ever - including a whopping 671 Test caps - with that tally significantly boosted by the return of centres Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith and winger Joe Rokocoko, at the expense of Benson Stanley, Richard Kahui and Zac Guildford. There is also a recall for Owen Franks at tight-head prop in the place of Neemia Tialata.
The Springboks will not be wanting for experience either with coach Peter De Villiers' latest selection boasting 661 Test appearances thanks largely to the return of enforcer Bakkies Botha to the second-row. The veteran lock will once again partner Victor Matfield, with their ability to dominate the All Blacks in what is traditionally a huge strength set to go a long way to deciding the clash. The equally formidable Danie Rossouw and Andries Bekker provide more than able cover on the bench.
De Villiers has opted to reinstate the Wynand Olivier/Jaque Fourie midfield partnership that began the game against the French, with Jean de Villiers moving to the wing, while Zane Kirchner srats at fullback in what De Villiers has called his strongest possible line-up. However, that fact has been questioned by some, with his preference for Ricky Januarie at scrum-half the centre of debate. Ruan Pienaar is seen by many as the man to fill the substantial void left by the injured Fourie du Preez.
New Zealand struggled with South Africa's superior physicality last year while the Springboks' superb kick chase was also a decisive factor. The recent performances of their scrum and lineout would suggest a sharp improvement is needed against a side that appears to have kicked on from last year, which also included a series victory over the British & Irish Lions.
Springbok newcomers - flanker Francois Louw, centre Juan de Jongh and wing Gio Aplon - may have emerged in recent weeks but they, like their New Zealand counterparts - fullback Israel Dagg and fly-half Aaron Cruden - will sit out this opening stanza and must wait for a chance to impress on a bigger stage. Instead it will be left to the establishment - South Africa's Matfield and Botha, fly-half Morne Steyn, winger Bryan Habana and inspirational Kiwi fly-half Dan Carter, flanker Richie McCaw and fullback Mils Muliaina - to go toe-to-toe and steal the initiative in this year's Tri-Nations.
Although they will be loath to admit it, this is a must-win game for the All Blacks as they build towards the World Cup. Another high profile failure on the sport's biggest stage would not be acceptable and Saturday's encounter offers a priceless opportunity to lay some unshakeable foundations for a long overdue win in the sport's showpiece event. Victory may also widen the few cracks evident in the Springboks' armour. But this ruthless South Africa side have little time for history or reputation and will relish the chance to sow a seed of doubt within the All Blacks' camp and the nation as a whole. A fascinating and bruising battle awaits.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Chiefs); C Jane (Hurricanes), C Smith (Hurricanes), M Nonu (Hurricanes), J Rokocoko (Blues); D Carter (Crusaders), J Cowan (Highlanders); T Woodcock (Blues), K Mealamu (Blues), O Franks (Crusaders), B Thorn (Crusaders), T Donnelly (Highlanders), J Kaino (Blues), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), K Read (Crusaders)
Replacements: C Flynn (Crusaders), B Franks (Crusaders), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), L Messam (Chiefs), P Weepu (Hurricanes), A Cruden (Hurricanes), R Kahui (Chiefs)
South Africa: Z Kirchner (Bulls); J de Villiers (Western Province), J Fourie (Stormers), W Olivier (Bulls), B Habana (Stormers); M Steyn (Bulls), R Januarie (Stormers); G Steenkamp (Bulls), J Smit (Sharks, capt), J du Plessis (Sharks), B Botha (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), F Louw (Stormers), P Spies (Bulls)
Replacements: C Ralepelle (Bulls), BJ Botha (Ulster), A Bekker (Stormers), D Rossouw (Bulls), R Pienaar (Sharks), B James (Bath), G Aplon (Stormers)
Referee: A. Lewis (Ire)
Assistant referees: A. Rolland (Ire), S. Dickinson (Aus)
Television Match Official: TBC
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.