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Preview: New Zealand v South Africa

13th September 2013 00:09

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The best in the world against their closest rivals - Saturday's match at Eden Park between the All Blacks and Springboks is a sellout.

Blockbuster fixtures are what The Rugby Championship is all about, and few games get bigger than this.

A 42-year hoodoo was lifted from South Africa last weekend with their win against Australia in Brisbane, providing a much-needed boost to Heyneke Meyer and his squad over questions as to whether they could win away from home.

As abysmal a performance that Australia produced last Saturday, the Springboks were still excellent. Four tries, including one each from Willie Le Roux and Zane Kirchner, have for now at least kept the critics quiet.

It has not been quite so long since a Springbok victory on New Zealand soil, four years in fact, but the buzz around this fixture is centred on a belief that South Africa can win.

Four years ago in Hamilton it required 22 points from the boots of two Steyns - Morné and Frans - to seal the win, either side of tries from Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers.

Now captain of his country, De Villiers has been an exemplary leadership figure throughout the Springboks' 2013 international fixtures. His nous for hitting the line hasn't been lost either, as shown against the Wallabies.

The '09 vintage Boks that defeated the British and Irish Lions and won the Tri-Nations were a special breed, but the signs thus far under Meyer are that the current herd are moving in the right direction.

The heavyweight back-row of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen flourished against Michael Hooper, shutting down the Waratahs openside through little else but raw power. It drew the effusive praise of their captain afterwards, another shot back at those who have doubted what South Africa are made of.

Reasoning for why the Springboks have a fighting chance in Auckland comes down to the fact that so many of their jigsaw pieces are already in place. There is a front-row with nearly 150 Test caps between them, a back-row answering back at their critics. Add the mercurial boot of Morné Steyn, the emerging combination between de Villiers and JJ Englebrecht, plus the threat of Bryan Habana and Le Roux and you have a worthy challenger.

Even Zane Kirchner - that selection ridiculed by so many ahead of last weekend - was effective at Suncorp in doing his job.

So far, so outstanding. Yet are South Africa truly capable of turning over the All Blacks at Eden Park - a venue where they remain unbeaten since 1994?

The gut reaction is no. Sure, New Zealand toiled to a win over Santiago Phelan's reborn Argentina side last weekend in Hamilton. But the conditions were a leveller, with more handling errors and than any top Test match should ever have.

It wasn't Steve Hansen's finest match in charge. New Zealand struggled at the scrum, Juan Figallo earning his stripes, whilst they lost Richie McCaw for a month due to a knee injury.

Underestimating McCaw's influence on New Zealand is naive - after all, no captain in the history of the game has more Test wins. The All Blacks are good enough to win without him, but less certain to.

That absence of McCaw's experience is a big reason for the return of Liam Messam. The Chiefs co-captain had some year in Super Rugby, yet lost his number six jersey to the impressive Steven Luatua due to injury. Now, Messam is back - forming a new-look back-row alongside Sam Cane and Kieran Read.

That is why the All Blacks are better than everyone else. McCaw drops out, Cane - the heir apparent - slots in. There is never a catastrophic loss of talent should one player miss out; just look at how they handled the disaster that was losing Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett to injury at fly-half by bringing in Tom Taylor. Depth is never an issue for New Zealand.

Except maybe at hooker. Dane Coles has arrived in the starting line-up not so much to a fanfare, but more like derision from South Africa and scepticism from his homeland. Hansen believes Coles is the future, but he sort of has to be. Keven Mealamu will be 36 by the time the next World Cup rolls around. Andrew Hore is reportedly retiring after The Rugby Championship.

A straight-up arm wrestle at the breakdown between the two back-rows has no obvious winner. Seeing Coles line up at hooker, regardless of having Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks either side of him, is an early plus for the Springbok Mtwarira-du Plessis axis.

Still, even with McCaw absent, doubts over Coles and a South African side on an impressive winning streak, New Zealand are favourites. Just not by as much as we're used to.

Ones to Watch:

For New Zealand: The scrutiny will be over Coles at hooker, but creeping back into your screens at inside centre is Ma'a Nonu. Unwanted in New Zealand, Nonu has now reportedly tied up a deal with Clermont, where he will join a centres depth chart that includes Regan King, Benson Stanley and Wesley Fofana. For a player who is not exactly used to being challenged for his spot, the move to Clermont will be some shift - but perhaps Nonu needs it. His Super Rugby performances over the last two seasons have been disappointing and Francis Saili appears to be his successor.

For South Africa: There is a little bit of heat on Ruan Pienaar. Not enough for his place to be threatened, but slow distribution at the breakdown has long been Pienaar's biggest criticism. Normally the first-choice goalkicker for Ulster, the other facets of Pienaar's game that aren't quite as good tend to be covered up; but with the Boks there is nowhere to hide. Jano Vermaak's chance will come soon, so Pienaar has to put in a performance.

Head to Head: Two of the world's finest number tens. Dan Carter appears fully recovered from the calf injury that kept him out of the first two matches against the Wallabies. The all-time leading Test points scorer was feeling the pressure until Aaron Cruden picked up his injury, but remains world-class in all facets of the fly-half role. Morné Steyn on the other hand has improved. Often criticised for being overly one-dimensional with his kicking game, Steyn has opened up the Springboks attack so far in the Rugby Championship, and it's working. It could prove to be the making of his legend - not just a great kicking fly-half, but a great one all round.

Previous results:

2012: New Zealand won 32-16 at Soccer City, Johannesburg
2012: New Zealand won 21-11 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
2011: South Africa won 18-5 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
2011: New Zealand won 40-7 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 29-22 at FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
2010: New Zealand won 31-17 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 32-12 at Eden Park, Auckland
2009: South Africa won 32-29 at Rugby Park, Hamilton
2009: South Africa won 31-19 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2009: South Africa won 28-19 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
2008: New Zealand won 19-0 at Newlands
2008: South Africa won 30-28 at Carisbrook, Dunedin
2008: New Zealand won 19-8 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2007: New Zealand won 33-6 at Jade Stadium, Christchurch
2007: New Zealand won 26-21 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2006: South Africa won 21-20 at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
2006: New Zealand won 45-26 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Prediction: Just because no other side might have had a better chance to beat New Zealand at Eden Park for some time, doesn't mean it will happen. South Africa though will come agonisingly close. New Zealand by three!

New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements:16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Tawera Kerr Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Charles Piutau

South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandré Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.

Date: September 14
Venue: Eden Park Stadium, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
Assessor: Lyndon Bray

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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