Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks under microscope for Ellis Park test

Keven Mealamu (centre) is the sole survivor of the 2004 loss at Ellis Park.
Keven Mealamu (centre) is the sole survivor of the 2004 loss at Ellis Park.

Ellis Park has been a graveyard and a springboard for the All Blacks. They have not played at the famous Johannesburg sporting arena since 2004 when they fell 40-26 in a result which provoked a dramatic overhaul of the All Black methods and philosophy.

It was a watershed test for the players and the coaching staff which triggered an in-depth rethink about players' self-reliance and the management of the group.

Steve Hansen, with fellow coaches Graham Henry and Wayne Smith, was part of that revamp aimed at empowering the players to sustain long-term performance and results charts.

They felt players had been indulged for too long and needed to contribute more. They took that philosophy and changes like moving Daniel Carter to first five-eighth on the end-of-year tour to Europe.

It has been nine years since the All Blacks duelled with the Boks at Ellis Park as they return for the Rugby Championship decider on Sunday.

Carter is missing because of injury but Keven Mealamu, who played in 2004, returns as the sole survivor.

Since that defeat the All Blacks have played the Springboks at Newlands, Pretoria, Rustenburg, Durban, Cape Town, Soweto and Port Elizabeth.

Ellis Park has been off the itinerary until Welsh referee Nigel Owens signals a resumption this weekend.

Three of the All Blacks from 2004, Xavier Rush, Simon Maling and Kees Meeuws, did not play another test and Justin Marshall, Sam Tuitupou, Marty Holah, Jonno Gibbes and Craig Newby were not going to figure much more.

That similar type of assessment will be going on in the All Black background as the coaches eye the 2015 World Cup campaign. Two years from now they will be assembling the group for the defence of their Webb Ellis crown.

Curiosity is bubbling about the test timeframe for Richie McCaw, Carter, Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock. Not all of them will last.

Some will fall into the attrition basket and others will be overtaken.

Judging when players are over the hill, their rivals are near the crest and how to make change is part of the judgment skill for the All Black panel.

They are not shy about that task. Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox have shed Zac Guildford, Piri Weepu, Victor Vito, Ben Tameifuna and Hika Elliot and reinstated a few since they embarked last year.

From the outside, Hansen and his staff appear to have claimed more of their squad's soul and found a rapport which has them bowling along steadily.

Players know they will get an occasional roasting.

There is no lasting venom, but if they repeat their mistakes or fail to address their flaws there will be consequences. Several have felt that pinch but with consistent hard work will make the grade for the end-of-year tour to Japan and Europe.

But the focus this week is the selection of the side to deal with the sound and fury at Ellis Park and a Springbok nation which believes they were robbed three weeks ago at Eden Park.

Ellis Park record

1992 All Blacks 27 Springboks 24

Historic first test between the two since isolation. The All Blacks bolted out to a decent lead as their grasp of regular test match rugby told on their less sophisticated foes. The pack's cohesion, a quick-thinking Zinzan Brooke try and Grant Fox's kicking gave them a lead to soak up the Boks' spirited late comeback.

1995 Springboks 15 All Blacks 12

The World Cup final to top all. The whole day was astonishing - the pre-match food poisoning, Jonah Lomu's tackling bounty, the jumbo jet fly-past, Nelson Mandela's appearance, the extra-time drop goal climax in Joel Stransky's favour, the relentless revelry.

1996 Springboks 32 All Blacks 22

The All Blacks had lost some of their sting after claiming their first series win in South Africa the week before. The teams scored three tries each but Andrew Mehrtens, back after missing the previous two tests, was not as sharp with his goalkicking as Henry Honiball and Andre Joubert.

1997 All Blacks 35 Springboks 32

Four tries to two should have nailed the test for the visitors but Jannie de Beer's extraordinary tally of conversions, penalties and dropped goals kept the Boks in there. Carlos Spencer's goalkicking could be erratic but his nerve held for six successes and the narrow triumph.

2000 Springboks 46 All Blacks 40

There were 10 tries in this free-ranging match, the Boks leading 33-13 in the first half until Mehrtens' drop goal 15 minutes from time had the All Blacks in front. A converted Bok try reversed that before the All Blacks' vain search for victory from a scrum in front of the Bok posts.

2004 Springboks 40 All Blacks 26

Lithe Bok centre Marius Joubert made three of his side's tries as they applied more heat than the All Blacks. Defeat ended the visitors' chances of a Tri-Nations title and sparked all sorts of changes (notably Daniel Carter to first five-eighth) for the end-of-year tour to Europe.

- NZ Herald

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