Battling it out in the House of Pain

The city of Dunedin is near the southern tip of New Zealand’s south island, where fog and icy gales can and do blow in from the Southern Ocean. Its rugby stadium, Carisbrook, is dubbed the ‘House of Pain” because of its reputation as a brutal venue for visiting teams.

Carisbrook has had a three-year break from Test rugby, but it is there that the Springboks and All Blacks line up in their second Tri-Nations Test on Saturday.

Both the Boks and the All Blacks have line-up changes from last week, the most obvious the loss of Bok captain John Smit to a groin strain caused by a cynical off-the-ball spear tackle by All Blacks lock Brad Thorn.

Victor Matfield replaces Smit as captain for the game. Though Matfield is an experienced captain at both provincial and international level, he lacks Smit’s leadership capabilities and calmness.
It is probably not a coincidence that the Boks started struggling in last week’s game soon after Smit left the field.

Stormers hooker Schalk Brits was called up to replace Smit and should earn his second cap off the bench, with Bismarck du Plessis in the number two jersey.

Du Plessis has an awesome physical presence around the park, which the Boks need, but his lineout throwing has been suspect recently. This is an area that the Boks can dominate so pressure is on Du Plessis to tighten up.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry also shuffled his lineup, bringing in new lock Anthony Boric to replace Thorn, who is suspended from Saturday’s game for the foul he committed on Smit.

Uncapped second rower Kevin O’Neill takes his place on the bench. Henry also called up Hurricanes tighthead John Afoa—just recovered from a knee injury—into the starting lineup. Henry must rate the bruising Afoa very highly, because the man he replaces—experienced prop Greg Somerville—was dropped from the match 22.

What the All Blacks lose in experience with these two changes, they should make up for in mobility and speed. The 24-year-old Boric—who plays for the Blues in the Super 14—will combine with the highly dangerous Ali Williams, who are both the lighter and quicker type of lock, not the bruising enforcer, á la Thorn or Bakkies Botha.

Butch James is key to the Springbok’s chances in this second Test. The veteran flyhalf unfortunately followed up two solid performances against Wales with a suspect one last week, unlike the clinical display from his All Blacks counterpart, Dan Carter.

James is still a world-class flyhalf, but the Boks need him to tighten up his game and be more controlling with his boot.

The Boks arrived in New Zealand last week with a little too much respect for the boys-in-black, perhaps too overawed by the occasion and the surroundings. The team can and must start acting like the champions they are and use tomorrow’s game to demand respect for themselves.

This second Test is a match the Boks can win. The All Blacks were dominant last week, but are still a young and inexperienced team, at least in theory.

Matfield’s men must do the basics right, cut down on mistakes and apply considerable pressure on the All Blacks pack, matching and beating their pace and power.

Peter de Villiers’s first defeat as coach has seen the knives start to come out, with respected commentators lining up to take pot shots at the Bok management and their apparent lack of tactical planning going into last Saturday’s game.

It is true that if the Boks struggle in the Tri-Nations and fail to live up to their world-champion status, De Villiers’s job will definitely be on the line. South African rugby supporters are a fickle lot, effervescent with joy and bravado when their team are winning, but despondent and sarcastic when they are not.

For De Villiers’s sake, let’s hope that his men can do better in Dune-din then they did in Wellington. Or else his stay in the cauldron that is the Bok coaching job might be shorter and less pleasant than it should be.

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