Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: ABs' head start over nervous Boks

Players like Sitiveni Sivivatu will be looking to make a big impact against South Africa. Photo / Getty Images
Players like Sitiveni Sivivatu will be looking to make a big impact against South Africa. Photo / Getty Images

There is a psychological logic to Graham Henry's selection for this week's trip to South Africa. By taking what is an obviously weakened team and laying it on thick that the key aim is to see fringe players in action to finalise the World Cup squad, the pressure will sit heavily on the Springboks.

The All Blacks have created a win-win for themselves. They travel as underdogs and while they say the expectation is victory, playing well and finishing - the World Cup selection jigsaw is the priority.

Those who start the test will be desperate to impress, desperate to stay in the final 30, so they will give it everything. But if they come up short, the damage to the All Blacks will be minimal. This isn't their best team, something the Boks will be acutely aware of.

When the scenario was reversed last month in Wellington, there was always an edginess about the outcome. The All Blacks had to win - imagine the mental carnage if they couldn't put away the Boks' dirt-trackers? The Boks now face that same pressure.

They know they will not be playing a full-strength All Black side, yet it is one that will still be dangerous and capable.

There will be no upside for the South Africans. If they win, they merely meet basic expectations. If they lose, they create the illusion of All Black invincibility.

The rest of the world will be terrified if the All Blacks can make a claim to being the best side in the world and the All Black reserve XV the second best team in the world. There is potential to demoralise South Africa in Port Elizabeth - to ravage them with self-doubt and steal their self-belief.

If the World Cup follows the seedings, then the All Blacks will meet the Boks in the semifinal. Imagine how the South Africans would feel knowing they have a potential fight looming with big brother, but they have just been beaten up by little brother?

Not everyone will be persuaded Henry is doing the right thing. But the All Black coach can't be held hostage by a lobby of public opinion that wants cake now and cake again at the World Cup. There has to be compromise somewhere because the cake just isn't that big. The cavalry will be sent directly to Brisbane suggesting we will see a strong XV named to play Australia with a view to closing out the Tri Nations with a victory.

The point to keep in mind is that Henry and his team are building strategies to manage the lunacy of the situation they face. Just three weeks out from the World Cup and they have to play the third best side in the world and their prospective semifinal opponents.

Only two weeks before the tournament starts they will be locked in battle with the Wallabies - the No 2 ranked team in the world. What other code pits the best teams against each other so close to the showpiece event?

So much for intrigue and being able to come into the World Cup with an element of mystery. The only mystery is trying to determine the final 30 the All Blacks will select for the World Cup.

The squad will be announced on August 23, the players likely to be told before the team leaves South Africa so as those excluded can fly back to New Zealand rather than be dragged to Brisbane and sent home from there.

The back three remains the key pressure point with Henry saying that the Springbok test will carry a heavy weighting and that Israel Dagg and Isaia Toeava, while selected in the original Tri Nations squad when they were injured, have to do more than just prove they are fit.

"In the back three, we have got eight players for six positions," he said. "Cory Jane, for example, was not selected in the top 30 initially and nor was Sitiveni Sivivatu. It is a selection issue. We go into this match not knowing who the final six are going to be for Rugby World Cup.

"We have got ideas there so it is two-fold this test. We want to play well and we want to win, but we have also got to take care of some selection issues."

Other than Mils Muliaina, there are no guarantees for any of the aspiring wings-cum-fullbacks, although Henry did hint that the final balance might show a bias towards those who are competent at fielding the high ball.

"My gut feel is that South Africa will play like they did in 2009. I think we will see a lot of driving lineouts, a lot of kicks into the air from the halfback and bombs from No 10 - it will be that sort of game.

"I think South Africa will revert back to what has been successful in the past.

"If you play Australia, they are not going to play that game.

"There might be different horses for courses but you would hope that one horse can do the whole lot."

Hosea Gear would sit near the bottom of the list when ranked by aerial skills but at the top in terms of his broken-field running and his try-scoring capability.

His strength in holding the ball up in midfield is also a huge asset and, by offering a different skill-set to the other contenders, he's most likely to be included.

On the vulnerable list are Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava, Zac Guildford, Jane and Sivivatu.

There is probably only room for three of them and Dagg and Toeava would be favourites to survive.

For the other three, the days ahead represent the biggest week of their careers.

- Herald on Sunday

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