New Zealand can put one hand on the Tri Nations trophy this weekend by winning in Port Elizabeth.
Pieter De Villiers’ term has been marked by eccentric and controversial comments. He has kept the bulk of Jake White’s 2007 team rather than putting his own stamp on things by introducing a new generation of players. If his team wins the World Cup, all of this will be glossed over. South Africa’s tour at the beginning of the tournament put paid to any chances they had of winning the Tri-Nations as de Villiers sent over his B team. This weekend, he goes with the big guns.
New Zealand take their turn to send over a second string team, shorn of McCaw, Carter, Read, Thorn and Smith among others. This presents a number of fringe players with an opportunity to stake a claim for a spot. Of most interest is the midfield: can Sonny Bill Williams live up to the hype and how will Colin Slade cope with test match rugby? Williams has looked very impressive playing beside Dan Carter. In fairness, who wouldn’t? Without him, he’s failed to make the same impact. Slade has played most of his representative rugby at full back and was injured for most of this season’s Super 15. Carter’s ability to play flat to the gain line and consistently vary his options is peerless. While no one expects Slade to be Dan Carter Mk 2, what impact his selection has on New Zealand’s attacking play will be interesting to note.
John Smit had mixed fortunes in South Africa’s earlier games. Charged with the responsibility of captaining a second string team away from home and asked to change position during matches, the champion Springbok sometimes struggled with form but never dropped his head, scoring two tries. However, Bismarck du Plessis is the best hooker in the world and de Villiers has made the call that makes sense. Smit will play a role in the RWC but will not start big games at hooker. Morne Steyn has been selected at fly half. Steyn’s goal kicking is superb but I think Lambie will move to first receiver during broken play to speed up the Boks’ attack. Willem Alberts gets a chance to crash around the pitch and claim the Bok 7 shirt in Juan Smith’s absence. Smith is unavailable for the World Cup.
The bookies make New Zealand-lite favourites against a first-string Springbok team. I’m surprised at this and think the Boks will win a physical contest. I don’t expect any tactical flair from South Africa in this contest, the nation’s rugby tradition is to study the opposition before the real business begins. These teams will likely meet in an Eden Park semi-final, with considerably more at stake.