Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Locks battle eagerly awaited

Ali Williams. Photo / Getty Images
Ali Williams. Photo / Getty Images

The lofty All Blacks lock partnership of Ali Williams and Sam Whitelock has been reunited for a mega duel against the Springboks senior lineout technicians, captain Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.

The New Zealanders paired up for the first time in Wellington last month when they duelled against rookie South African locks Gerhard Mostert and Alistair Hargreaves. That night Williams and Whitelock were part of an impressive 40-7 win to the hosts.

Now they have been asked to repeat that business against the premier Bok pairing.

Williams has played every test this season as he continues to work his way back to the top level after two injury-depleted seasons. Whitelock was the latest lock to claim Williams' place and formed a strong alliance with his Crusaders' teammate Brad Thorn. But he has started only a quarter of his 16 tests with Anthony Boric or Tom Donnelly preferred as the senior lineout forward alongside the bullocking scrum and ruck power of Thorn.

Now with Thorn on a weekend leave pass with half the team regulars, Whitelock will step out at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth alongside Williams. The All Black pair have a combined test tally of 80 caps while Botha and Matfield have played in 179 tests.

Coach Graham Henry said his side's buildup this week had been sharp and he was confident about the outcome. "There is excitement across the board in the squad and every player will be looking to put in a big performance this weekend," he said.

"Playing the Springboks at home is always a massive occasion and with Rugby World Cup spots also for grabs, our players will be looking to put in a big performance."

Fullback Israel Dagg, wing Isaia Toeava, centre Richard Kahui and prop Tony Woodcock return for their first test this season after extended injury leave while hooker Keven Mealamu captains the side in his 85th test.

The three backs need strong games to persuade Henry and his assistants, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, they should be included in Tuesday's announcement of the World Cup squad. Others face similar scrutiny.

Hosea Gear gets another spin on the wing after his steady work against the Wallabies in his return from a hamstring injury.

The loose forwards have been revamped with Adam Thomson primed to handle the openside duties in the absence of captain Richie McCaw and Liam Messam dropping into the boot of the scrum with Kieran Read also on leave.

Thomson, McCaw, Read and Jerome Kaino, who is blindside flanker for this test, are all loose forward certainties for the World Cup while Messam needs a convincing performance to be picked for the fifth spot in that contingent.

Three players on tour have been left out of this test - Ma'a Nonu will be a core pick for the World Cup but Zac Guildford is probably an outsider in the congested wing selections and Wyatt Crockett's continued selection depends on Woodcock's medical reports.

Starting XV:

1. Tony Woodcock
2. Keven Mealamu - captain
3. John Afoa
4. Samuel Whitelock
5. Ali Williams
6. Jerome Kaino
7. Adam Thomson
8. Liam Messam
9. Jimmy Cowan
10. Colin Slade
11. Hosea Gear
12. Sonny Bill Williams
13. Richard Kahui
14. Isaia Toeava
15. Israel Dagg

Reserves:

16. Andrew Hore
17. Ben Franks
18. Jarrad Hoeata
19. Victor Vito
20. Andy Ellis
21. Piri Weepu
22. Cory Jane

- NZ Herald

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