Tri-Nations is at the Boks' fingertips

The Springboks kick off the second half of their 2008 Tri-Nations campaign in Cape Town, knowing that a record of one win and two defeats from their away tour is not a strong enough platform to bear any complacency.

A score of 63-9 against the Argentinian Pumas sounds pretty convincing, but the Boks spent the first 30 minutes of that game milling around, lacking direction and purpose. A brilliant line-break by Jean de Villiers woke them out of their stupor and opened the floodgates, but give the All Blacks 30 minutes to work with at Newlands and they will punish the Boks for it. It is a mistake that cannot be repeated.

Saturday’s game will mark the 100th Test cap for fullback Percy Montgomery—a milestone that will be remembered for some time.
This century will enter the long list of records Montgomery already holds, including most points in a single Test (35) and in a season (219).

Montgomery made his Springbok debut in 1997, playing as a pacy outside centre under short-lived coach Carel du Plessis. With the retirement of André Joubert, Montgomery was able to establish himself in his best position, fullback, under Nick Mallett. He was part of the unsuccessful 1999 World Cup squad and won his 50th cap in 2001, when he decided to take an international sojourn, moving to Wales to play for Newport and Newport Gwent Dragons.

Recalled in 2004 by Jake White, Montgomery made his comeback against Ireland, also at Newlands, and established himself as vital to the Boks’ resurgence. He was the leading point-scorer in the 2004 and 2005 Tri-Nations, and became the most capped Bok ever during last year’s World Cup, passing Joost van der Westhuizen, and was again that tournament’s leading point-scorer.

This year, Montgomery returned from a stint with French club Perpignan and has shared fullback duties with Conrad Jantjes since. It is fitting that Montgomery earns his 100th cap both against the Boks’ greatest opponents and at his favourite stadium, Newlands.

The Bok starting 15 has seen some changes from last week, with both flank Schalk Burger and wing Bryan Habana returning from cautionary rest. Jongi Nokwe, who made a solid debut in place of Habana last week, drops out of the squad, with JP Pietersen partnering Habana on the right wing.

With enforcer Bakkies Botha nursing damage to his knee and looking set to miss the rest of the Tri-Nations, Andries Bekker comes off the bench and into the second row, partnering captain Victor Matfield.

Recalled Bulls hard man Danie Rossouw moves on to the bench in place of Bekker. Some have questioned this decision, saying that Bekker and Matfield are too similar and that Matfield would be better partnered with the less subtle Rossouw. Those critics forget that Bekker only looks lightweight and lanky because of his height—he actually carries 125kg of bulk—and that he was more than solid defensively against the Pumas.

Bekker and Matfield, working together, can ensure Bok dominance in the line-out, an area where All Black lock Ali Williams was able to punish the Wallabies in their last encounter.

Also back in the starting line-up is scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who was highly effective coming off the bench against Argentina. Du Preez, rated by many as the best scrumhalf in world rugby, will be facing All Black scrumhalves Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu.

Both are good players but lack the tactical astuteness and the brilliant kicking game of Du Preez, who also has the nuggety presence of Ricky Januarie as back-up.

As usual, the All Blacks’ approach will hinge on the efforts of their two most stellar players—skipper Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter. Carter has been in sublime form recently, tactically directing his troops with the boot and making the kind of slippery breaks that test the best defences.

Without McCaw, the All Blacks’ loose trio looked shaky, which the Boks were able to exploit in their win at the House of Pain. With McCaw back in the picture, it is a completely different story. The world’s leading open-side flank will lead from the front and will be itching to get at the Boks after missing the Tests in Wellington and Dunedin.

Close down these two, get in their faces and don’t allow them to dictate the game and the rest of the team will begin to look very ordinary.

Win Saturday’s game, and the 2008 Tri-Nations lies within the Boks’ grasp. Lose it, and it all but slips out of reach. Peter de Villiers knows this, and so do his players.

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