3 Jul 2008

Rugby Tri-Nations Time!

Huge rugby weekend on Saturday when the world's premier rugby test, the Tri-Nations series, kicks off with a volcanic encounter between the Springboks and All Blacks in New Zealand's Dunedin "House of Pain" stadium.

Bok/Black match-ups have an intensity all of their own in world rugby and for nigh on 100 years and this one is no different with the World Champ South Africans desperate to prove their superiority against a New Zealand side that feels bitterly cheated of the same title in 2007. They are focused with X-ray intensity on penetrating and destroying the Boks 12 match unbeaten run. Bragging rights, the inside track to the Tri-Nations '08 trophy and the IRB No 1 ranking are all on the line.

SA's first non-white coach, Pieter de Villiers, has chosen a very good side with many excellent players of colour. The full set of new laws will be on display for the first time too, meaning each side will be stretched to the full limit of their speed and endurance in the machine-gun rapidity of the experimental rule changes. However, scrum advantage plays an enhanced role under the new laws and this is where de Villiers may have erred. The All Blacks have a powerful scrum and a very destructive front row that pulverized England in two recent Tests - yet de Villiers, who paired his best front row with BJ Botha and exciting new black prop Beast Mtwarira against Wales three weeks ago has inexplicably left Botha at home.

Perhaps there is politics at play here, with de Villers having to field, by some rumored unwritten agreement with the SA sports authorities, a high number of "coloured" players - or perhaps he has just made a mistake. You simply must get parity, if not go-forward, at scrum time under the new laws, since the defenders have to stand 5 yrads behind the scrum which gives the attackers a big advantage. I can't see de Villiers possible combinations of Steenkamp/Van Der Linde and young first-timers Mujati/Mtwarira doing this in Dunedin against the best, when they failed to manage the front-foot against lesser opposition in recent weeks.

The Boks best card will be the lineout combination of world class locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies "Pickup Truck" Botha whose work in this department is simply brilliant. Therefore, expect magical All Black no 10 Dan Carter to do everything to avoid lineouts while his classy backline of Nonu, Leon McDonald, Sivivatu and possibly Conrad Black (if chosen) try to run the Springboks ragged with fast play from side to side of the pitch.

With Captain Ritchie McCaw out of action, the Bok backrow should shade the All Blacks led by Rodney So'ialo but de Villiers may opt for Luke Watson instead of his hardest combo of Burger,Juan Smith and a resurgent Big Joe Van Niekerk at no 8. In fact, de Villers has so many quality backrowers he is probably spoiled to get this vital balance perfect. New Zealand may not match up here, giving the Boks a real chance at the vital breakdown ball - and a win.

He would be wise to suit up 5 forwards and only two backs on his bench, since in runners Pienaar and Steyn he has two backs who can cover every backline combination. Since two of his loose forward bench, Spies and Kankowski, are as explosive and fast as backs in their own right, this could give the real edge. But, as I write,one is unsure of who de Villers will actually pick.

Every Kiwi is dangerous, but Maa Nonu especially so at No 12 and with the clever Conrad Black at 13, the Boks likely pairing of John de Villers and Adi Jacobs are going to have their hands very full indeed, let alone with the brilliance of McDonald and Sivivatu. The new coach wants to play an expansive game but will the Bok no 12 and 13 get the space and time to deliver their clever touches? It must be in doubt. Again, the Boks will likely play JJ Pietersen on one wing, yet he is a shadow of his 2007 form when de Villers might have moved incumbent, on-form fullback Conrad Jantjes to the wing and played the always reliable Percy Montgomery at fullback, even given he is 34 years young but still playing near his very best. This mega-Test will come down to how clever each coach is with his final line-up and if amything de Villers has more options than Graham Henry for once - and more chances thus to get it wrong.

My head gives this match to the All Blacks on home soil and by about 7 points but it will be a close run affair and certainly is the most awaited clash for years. My heart goes to the Boks who can certainly win and have the best chance against New Zealand at home for many seasons - but certainly is a word that almost always comes undone against a fired up bunch of All Blacks on home winter soil. Have your smelling salts and blood pressure guage to hand when you switch this one on.

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