All Blacks close in on Tri-Nations crown
August 19, 2010
The All Blacks v Springboks rivalry will break new ground at Soweto's FNB Stadium this weekend © Getty Images
A Tri-Nations that has already provided a feast for the eye is set to deliver another spectacle on Saturday as South Africa and New Zealand go head-to-head at the sold-out FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
The first rugby match to be staged at the majestic venue in the Soweto township, that recently played host to the FIFA World Cup Final in its former guise as Soccer City, offers the Springboks a chance to breathe life into a lacklustre campaign that leaves them propping up the Tri-Nations table with three defeats and no points.
As a result of two impressive victories over the Boks on home soil and back-to-back wins against the Wallabies, the All Blacks need just one point from their remaining two matches to reclaim the southern hemisphere crown and the chance to complete the job and avenge a clean-sweep of defeats to South Africa this time last year is sure to be a powerful incentive.
The All Blacks have been in scintillating form in this year's Tri-Nations - running both the Springboks and the Wallabies ragged with an insatiable appetite for fast-paced running rugby that has had fans and pundits alike running out of superlatives. The team's most recent outing against Australia in Christchurch may not have lived up to the high-octane standards of their earlier successes but the defensive wall that shut the Wallabies out was arguably equally as impressive as the running rugby that saw them take a stranglehold on the competition.
In contrast, the Springboks have been woefully short of the high standards they set in 2009 on their way to a series victory over the British & Irish Lions and the Tri-Nations title.
Painfully short of a cutting edge and lacking the creative flair they were not only out-coached and out-played by the All Blacks on their away leg but also second best to the Wallabies. A lengthy break and return to the Highveld will no doubt have worked wonders for Peter de Villiers' charges who are under increasing pressure to return to winning ways and show they can still mix it with the big boys just a year after sweeping all before them.
But the hosts have it all to do to stop an All Blacks train that has significant momentum and brimming with confidence. Graham Henry's side will fancy their chances against a demoralised Springboks side but pride and the altitude factor could prove to be the biggest hurdles between them and the title. The players will be all-too-familiar with the difficulties posed by just a week's preparation for a game at altitude and the physical toll of playing at an elevation of 1,753 metres may well act as a hand-brake on the All Blacks' hopes of returning to the free-running game that has brought them so much joy so far.
The key question is whether the Boks can rediscover their swagger and the zip that was evidently missing from their endeavours in New Zealand and Australia. Perhaps fearing his side had lost their way somewhat, De Villiers has wielded the axe for the game in a clear statement that some of his players may be living on borrowed time.
One player to escape the selection surgery was hooker John Smit who will pack down for his 100th Test cap in the face of growing personal criticism. Wary of the task in hand, the veteran has shunned any personal accolades this week and will instead aim to do his talking on the pitch. With perhaps one-eye to the future, De Villiers has handed lock Flip van der Merwe his first Test start in the place of Danie Rossouw who is struggling with a hip injury while the exciting Francois Hougaard is another given a chance to stake a claim for further honours with the starting scrum-half berth with Ruan Pienaar injured. The likes of centres Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie are not so fortunate and make way for a new midfield combination of Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh who will be tasked with dancing or simply barging their way through the All Blacks' defence.
Prop BJ Botha and flanker Ryan Kankowski are also ousted by Jannie du Plessis and Juan Smith with both set to add some grunt and guile. The return of Smith in particular will bring much cheer having been out of the picture for almost a year during which time his presence has been missed and his success alongside Pierre Spies and Schalk Burger will go some way to deciding the clash. The selection quandary facing Henry was less taxing with Jimmy Cowan returning to the No.9 shirt ahead of Piri Weepu having recovered from injury while Ben Franks gets the nod over his brother Owen at tight-head for his third Test start.
The Springboks' indiscipline proved pivotal in the previous meetings of these two sides and it remains to be seen whether the revitalised side we have been promised will have addressed those shortcomings. We can only hope that referee Nigel Owens is a commanding and consistent presence throughout the game but the influence of the referee was only part of the story in Auckland and Wellington. The hosts' quest to meet fire with fire may benefit from a greater focus on the set-piece but having secured the ball they still need to conjure the scoring opportunities that have proven so elusive of late.
New Zealand will enter the game as favourites to heap woe on South Africa and wrap up their 10th Tri-Nations title but they know better than to write off the Springboks. However, the under-fire hosts must prove the old adage of 'form is temporary, class is permanent' to be true if they are to prevent the All Blacks sending 90,000 fans home disappointed.
South Africa: G Aplon (Stormers); JP Pietersen (Sharks), J de Jongh (Stormers), J de Villiers (Stormers), B Habana (Stormers); M Steyn (Bulls), Francois Hougaard (Bulls); G Steenkamp (Bulls), J Smit (Sharks), J du Plessis (Sharks), F van der Merwe (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), J Smith (Cheetahs), P Spies (Bulls).
Replacements: C Ralepelle (Bulls), CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs), D Rossouw (Bulls), F Louw (Stormers), R Januarie (Stormers), B James (Bath), W Olivier (Bulls).
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Waikato); C Jane (Wellington), C Smith (Wellington), M Nonu (Wellington), J Rokocoko (Auckland); D Carter (Canterbury), J Cowan (Southland); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), B Franks (Tasman), B Thorn (Canterbury), T Donnelly (Otago), J Kaino (Auckland), R McCaw (Canterbury), K Read (Canterbury).
Replacements: P Weepu (Wellington), A Cruden (Manawatu), I Dagg (Hawke's Bay), C Flynn (Canterbury), J Afoa (Auckland), S Whitelock (Canterbury), V Vito (Wellington).
Referee: N. Owens (Wal)
Assistant referees: A. Rolland (Ire), S. McDowell (Ire)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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