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04 Jul 2008 08:24
It’s been 10 years since Nick Mallett’s Springboks, captained by Gary Teichmann, beat their greatest rivals in Wellington by 13 to 3. The class of 1998 were a brilliant team and their victory came in the middle of a 17-match winning streak.
They followed up that win by beating the All Blacks again a week later in Durban, clinching the 1998 Tri-Nations trophy for their troubles.
The class of 2008 are also a strong team and, though they have a new coach and some new combinations, they still retain the highly experienced core of the winning World Cup team of last year.
Bok captain John Smit could have walked away from Test rugby by now, ending his international career on the high note of the Webb Ellis trophy, but chose to return to lead his team again—in large part because he has unfinished business, coming within centimetres of beating the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2004 and 2005.
The All Blacks are always tough to play and tough to beat, particularly on their own turf, and that hasn’t changed; but injuries and the relocation of key players mean that this is probably the weakest All Blacks team the Boks have had to face in a long time.
New Zealand Rugby Union rules forbid the selection of foreign-based players for the All Blacks, but this year’s Tri-Nations might show the folly of that decision, as many former All Blacks are still in their prime but now on big English and French contracts.
Coach Graham Henry has been forced to call a number of young untested players who were accomplished in the Super 14 but are new to Test rugby. The series of tough games they are about to face may show that the stocks of talent in New Zealand are looking a bit shallow.
Both teams have had three warm-up games against under-par northern hemisphere teams so far this season, and have new combinations and still-inexperienced players. Both teams will have to step up their performance as Saturday will be the first time they face real quality opposition.
An ankle injury in the second Test against England to All Blacks captain and breakdown specialist Richie McCaw is a loss that his team will feel heavily. With McCaw watching from the stands, the Bok loose forwards have a definite edge over their Kiwi counterparts. And Schalk Burger and Juan Smith can and must dominate the breakdown area and starve the All Blacks backline both of the ball and the room to use it.
Similarly, the All Blacks line-out has shown signs of weakness in the past few games, without the giant Chris Jack. Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Andries Bekker also must exploit this and be sure to dominate the aerial battle, using their height to target their shorter opponents, Brad Thorn and stand-in skipper Rodney So’oialo.
Matfield and Botha have not played much together this year, but the Tri-Nations is their opportunity to re-establish themselves as the premier lock pairing in the world.
A series of injuries to World Cup outside centre Jaques Fourie has raised some doubts about the depth available in his position and the All Blacks might look to exploit the number 13 channel, probing for holes in the midfield. But a Bok backline with Butch James, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers still oozes class.
The Boks have several incumbents who have strong claims at being the best players in the world in their respective positions. The Tri-Nations can give them the opportunity to prove themselves and put aside any lingering doubts about their world champion status.
On paper the Boks have the stronger team. The challenge is to gel together, play to their strengths and keep pressure on their opponents for the full 80 minutes. It’s a good time to break a 10-year drought.
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