Planet Rugby

3N Preview: South Africa v New Zealand

21st June 2007 17:53

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Ruan Pienaar

Pienaar: Could he be South Africa's missing link?

This is it! Both coaches have played it down this week, but there is little doubt in most minds that this is dress rehearsal, part one, for October's Rugby World Cup final.

Both are behaving like it already is the World Cup final. There have been police guards at training, and there has been aloofness from both teams in their dealings with the media this week, with sessions heavily-policed by the gatekeepers of information and restricted to the barest minimum of time.

It seems, from the late changes to the Bok team, that they at least have good reason to throw up the cloaks of secrecy. If politics has bedevilled Jake White's previous attempts to field his first-choice team up to now, in the week that matters it is injury sneaking up to apply the rubber to the pencilled names on the team-sheet. The losses of John Smit and Juan Smith were anticipated blows, but the sudden additional loss of Pierre Spies will leave a hole that cannot be filled.

Politics may still be wrapping up White's mission in red tape behind the scenes - it is rumoured that Ashwin Willemse's place in the side would have been Frans Steyn's but for a command from a higher being - but publicly at least, there appears to be a blessedly united front about the Boks' preparations for Saturday's clash.

New Zealand have never been anything but united since Graham Henry took over, and the team has been quietly bubbling up all week, with energetic training sessions, clean bills of health, and confident arrogance pervading every movement.

Henry's cotton-wool policy of resting his players at the start of the season has paid a rich dividend. While the injuries creeping into the Bok squad - muscular tears and deep bruises - are those that you would normally associate with tiring players nearing the business end of an abrasive season, Henry's troop is enjoying the effervescence of battle-hardened health that a team has after stepping its way through the minefield of early-season niggles.

It is this that will give them the edge in Saturday's encounter. The slow speed of the Boks' recovery from the hammering dished out by Australia last weekend has left them precious little time to get the matchday structures right, and although you can argue that New Zealand have had just as little time because of the jet-lag involved in the long journey, the brief glances afforded of their training have revealed a team anything but weary. Monday's training session was marked by a caterwaul of whoops and battle-cries as things went right.

The injuries have hit the Boks where it really hurts. Smit's absence will be filled by Gary Botha in the loose, and Botha's runs may tempt the Boks into a more open style of play, but Anton Oliver was right when he hinted that the Bok scrum will now be easier to split down the middle. Botha is good, but he is not the scrummager Smit is.

In the back row, Smith's absence removes some of the speedy dynamic from the Boks' hard-hitting game, and Spies' absence merely exacerbates that. With Bob Skinstad, the Boks have a ball player, but not the battering ram hitherto favoured by White.

The Boks have lost key elements of their preferred weapons of choice - scrum and back-row charge, and in other aspects, the All Blacks are streets ahead. Out wide there is no comparison between the two teams whether Jaque Fourie is injured or fit, and although White waxed lyrical about the Boks' ball retention skills on Wednesday, New Zealand won't really need all that much ball to get the necessary points. Up front, the Boks' slight edge has been lost, and if they are forced into an open game, they may end up signing their own death warrant.

Neither coach believes, publicly, that it would be a setback to World Cup preparations if defeated, but the Boks, at home and on a roll, have far more to lose and far more pressure on them to win. Losing away from home in the Tri-Nations opener would not be a huge setback for Graham Henry, but a home defeat for the Boks would be a huge psychological blow. After Saturday, it may well be interesting to see how they cope with it.

Ones to watch:

For South Africa: So much has been made of Pierre Spies as the new great thing of SA rugby, but quietly slipping into the team as a regular, and making a massive difference to South Africa's play last week, is scrum-half Ruan Pienaar. His distribution from the base of the scrum was just the snappy, zippy ball that ought to set a back-line firing, and a more adventurous fly-half than Butch James - Andre Pretorius for example - would use it to set the back-line alight. He is also a useful weapon with an ounce of space with his elegant acceleration and eye for a move. Spies may be a rising star but Pienaar is poised to be a truly great scrum-half if given the chance.

For New Zealand: The latest bright thing shining bright in New Zealand's stellar backs is Isaia Toeava. He struggled initially to lose his greenness when thrust into the team, but a terrific Super 14 full of tries, tackle-busts and steps shows he is now up to the level, and Graham Henry could finally have found an outside centre to rely on for the next four years, never mind this one.

Head to head: Carl Hayman v Os du Randt. Hayman is, relative to position, the best player in the world right now, but he comes up against a fearless old campaigner with every trick in the book within his repertoire in South Africa's 'big Os' on Saturday.

Prediction: New Zealand are fresh, South Africa are not. The Boks will put up a fight to be sure, but they may find themselves run ragged by the end of Saturday. New Zealand by 15 points.

Recent results:

2000: New Zealand won 25-12 in Christchurch

2000: South Africa won 46-40 in Johannesburg

2001: New Zealand won 12-3 in Cape Town

2001: New Zealand won 26-15 in Auckland

2002: New Zealand won 41-20 in Wellington

2002: New Zealand won 30-23 in Durban

2003: New Zealand won 52-16 in Pretoria

2003: New Zealand won 19-11 in Dunedin

2003: New Zealand won 29-9 in Melbourne

2004: New Zealand won 23-21 in Christchurch

2004: South Africa won 40-26 in Johannesburg

2005: South Africa won 22-16 in Cape Town

2005: New Zealand won 31-27 in Dunedin

2006: New Zealand won 35-17 in Wellington

2006: New Zealand won 45-26 in Pretoria

2006: South Africa won 21-20 in Rustenburg

The teams:

South Africa:15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Ashwin Willemse, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Butch James, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Bob Skinstad, 7 Danie Rossouw, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Os du Randt.

Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Johann Muller, 19 Pedrie Wannenburg, 20 Michael Claassens, 21 Wynand Olivier, 22 Frans Steyn.

New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Byron Kelleher, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jerry Collins, 5 Greg Rawlinson, 4 Troy Flavell, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Anton Oliver, 1 Tony Woodcock

Replacements: 16 Kevin Mealamu, 17 Neemia Tialata, 18 Ross Filipo, 19 Chris Masoe, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Leon McDonald.

Date: Saturday, 23 June

Venue: ABSA Stadium, Durban

Kick-off: 15.00 (13.00 GMT)

Weather: Sunny skies, 25C, low humidity, little wind. A perfect day, cooling later to 10C

Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)

Touch judges: Wayne Barnes (England), Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Television match official: Hugh Watkins (Wales)

By Danny Stephens

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