All Blacks: Old rivals primed for classic

The All Blacks can secure the Tri-Nations with a bonus point on Sunday. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The All Blacks can secure the Tri-Nations with a bonus point on Sunday. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The under-siege Springboks will be pinning their hopes of a maiden victory in this year's Tri-Nations on a brand-new stadium, the emotion surounding captain John Smit's 100th test and the biggest crowd to watch an international in the Republic in over half a century when they face the All Blacks at the renamed Soccer City in Soweto on Sunday morning (NZT).

The recent decision of the local Golden Lions Rugby Union to move the match from the imposing but ageing 60-000 seater Ellis Park to the venue of the football World Cup final has been welcomed by local supporters, but the feeling of a number of former All Blacks who visited the massive and ultra-modern arena this week was that it isn't nearly as imposing as locals would like to believe.

The stuttering Springboks will in all likelihood need more than an intimidating location if they are to salvage something from what has been a forgettable campaign in which the All Blacks have not only notched back-to-back victories over the old enemy but achieved them in style.

In what is seen here as a thinly-veiled attempt to fight fire with fire, South Africa have made five changes to their backs but perhaps tellingly have retained the services of kicking maestro Morne Steyn at first five-eighth.

The All Blacks, meanwhile, have made just two changes to their personnel as they attempt to pick up the solitary log point required to confirm their reclamation of the Tri-Nations trophy.

Ben Franks replaces brother Owen at tighthead while Jimmy Cowan takes the number nine jersey from Weepu after recovering from injury.

"The fact that Ben is starting shows how far he has advanced," said All Blacks coach Graham Henry, who had the luxury of swapping the scrumming brothers with the full knowledge that his opposite number, Peter de Villiers, would stick by the middling Gurthro Steenkamp at loosehead.

The Springbok management, whose paranoia reached farcical proportions earlier this week when Steenkamp's scrumming coach Os du Randt was prevented from taking part in a light-hearted interview session with John Kirwan at a televised function held to raise funds for seriously injured players, are clearly feeling the weight of public expectation despite their bullish appearance at training sessions.

De Villiers and his selectors are banking on the experience of the recalled Juan Smith to help float a side which has been criticised lately for being unfit and tactically inflexible, with Henry not shy to encourage the Boks to deviate from the tried-and-tested kicking recipe that has served them well in recent years.

"I think they will use the ball," Henry said.

"There's not going to be any rain, so it will be great conditions to use the ball."

Smith's recall, following an enforced absence after the death of his father, however leaves South Africa with no specialist openside to counter All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, although De Villiers was having none of it this week.

"Their roles have been clearly defined. It won't be a problem," said the coach, who has managed to fly below the radar after his highly publicised SANZAR disciplinary case earlier this month, related to comments he made about refereeing following the Boks' two defeats in New Zealand.

Whatever the South Africans' back-row issues, veteran Smith should slot back in seamlessly.

Less certain is the workability of the untried halfback combination of Steyn and Bulls teammate Francois Hougaard - who ironically played wing for the Pretoria franchise's entire Super 14 campaign and who has hardly sniffed the number nine jersey since.

The same can be said for another Bull, lock Flip van der Merwe, who leapfrogs the injured Danie Rossouw and the suspended Bakkies Botha straight into the engine room alongside Victor Matfield.

"We're not getting ahead of ourselves, we know the challenge in front of us," said Henry, who knows that after suffering through a hattrick of defeats to the Boks last year, he is now but 80 high-altitude minutes away from returning the favour.

Teams:

New Zealand
Mils Muliaina; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko; Daniel Carter, Jimmy Cowan; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerome Kaino; Tom Donnelly, Brad Thorn; Ben Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Replacements: Corey Flynn, John Afoa, Sam Whitelock, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg


South Africa
Gio Aplon; JP Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana; Morne Steyn, Francois Hougaard; Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger; Victor Matfield, Flip van der Merwe; Jannie du Plessis, John Smit (capt), Gurthro Steenkamp. Replacements: Chiliboy Ralepelle, CJ van der Linde, Danie Rossouw, Francois Louw, Ricky Januarie, Butch James, Wynand Olivier


- NZPA

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