Rugby: Henry's hoodoo

By Wynne Gray

It has been an annual entry in Graham Henry's must-fix dossier - a small portfolio but with a grisly recurring theme. Nothing, bar the World Cup search, has tortured the All Black coach more.

How to beat the Springboks in their own backyard?

Three times under Henry's tutelage, the All Blacks have travelled to South Africa and on each visit they have been defeated.

The yearly stain began at Ellis Park in 2004 with supplementary chapters from Newlands in 2005 and the Royal Bafokeng Stadium last year. The scripts are especially galling for Henry as his teams have lost just four of 39 internationals since he took over.

Test No 40 at Kings Park in Durban, in the early hours of Sunday morning, stands as the start of the All Blacks' Tri-Nations campaign and a mini-watershed in this season's search for World Cup glory.

Much has been made of Henry's ceding even more advantage to the Springboks and South African rugby this season by withdrawing the All Blacks from the bulk of the Super 14 series before the Bulls beat the Sharks in a dramatic final.

The rotation and resting of All Blacks, the reconditioning, the positional experiments, a messy victory against Canada - they have all conspired to raise the stakes and uncertainty about the All Blacks' fate this weekend.

Some of that hyperbole took a hit yesterday about the time the weary All Blacks sank into their airport hotel beds after seeing off Canada 64-13 in Hamilton and before the early morning wakeup calls for their flight to South Africa.

The heavily favoured Springboks lost three senior forwards to injury and needed two late dropped goals from wunderkind Francois Steyn to overhaul the Wallabies, a side whose losing hoodoo in the Republic stretches back to 2000. At least the All Blacks won last year at Loftus Versfeld but they undid that headway with their sloppy defeat a week later at Rustenburg.

For some of the All Black party, this will be their third trip to South Africa this season and while they are playing at sea level that sort of travel schedule could blunt their edge.

Henry conceded those problems, saying his side may only train twice this week with the emphasis on recovery.

"We can't try too much otherwise they will not have enough fuel in the tank for the test," he said. "The record of this group is not good, played four won one, this is a big one."

Some of the rugby euphoria in South Africa after the Super 14 triumph and wins against England and Samoa plateaued after the Springboks struggled past the Wallabies 22-19.

After 10 minutes it was hard to see the Wallabies coping with the furnace-blast intensity of the Boks, but they defended with great passion against a home side which showed mono-dimensional attacking strategies. They also lost the leadership of captain John Smit to a hamstring problem while Juan Smith and Gurthro Steenkamp damaged knees.

From a 10-3 deficit, the Wallabies salted away 16 unanswered points and led seven minutes from time before Steyn saved the locals' reputation. The fright will make the Boks even more dangerous this weekend but there are questions about their selections and stilted approach.

Their first idea was to use one-off runners and there was little deviation from that crushing tactic. Problem was the Wallabies were resolute, dealt to an ineffective Boks scrum and had in George Gregan, Matt Giteau and George Smith players who could make something out of little. They came up short but not by much.

Ruan Pienaar and Butch James were flustered out of the game, Ashwin Willemse was rattled, Victor Matfield seemed to want to avoid confrontation in the safety of midfield while the fractious Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger really tested calm English referee Wayne Barnes.

The heat on the All Blacks will come at their lineout where the Blues locking pair of Greg Rawlinson and Troy Flavell should be picked to replace their injured and paternity-leave teammates.

The other area of strong debate will be the choice of Aaron Mauger or Luke McAlister at second five-eighths, unless the selectors use both players as they did without great success in Hamilton.

- NZ Herald

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