Rugby Union: Hart fears Springbok backlash

Paul Trow finds the All Blacks wary of entering South Africa's stronghold
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The Independent Online
There are two schools of thought about the opening fixture of the 1997 Tri-Nations Series in Johannesburg on Saturday. The popular notion is that South Africa's limitations were exposed by a motivated but far from invincible Lions party. If the Springboks couldn't contain the Lions, so the argument goes, what chance do they have against the world's top side?

The second opinion is that the world champions may have taken victory over the Lions for granted. They were rudely awakened in the first Test, lost the second only because they lacked a decent place kicker and, pride stung, finally found their feet with a vengeance at Ellis Park last weekend. This theory suggests the Lions played the Spingboks back into form and the return on Saturday to their favourite Afrikaaner citadel may be bad news for the All Blacks.

John Hart, the chairman of the All Blacks' selectors and their senior coach, unashamedly subscribes to the latter view, especially as his men lost 32-22 when the sides last met 10 months ago in the same stadium. At the time that result did not seem too significant as the South Africans had lost four Tests to the same opponents during the preceding six weeks. But Hart warns: "The Lions have certainly done us no favours. They played really well and were very well prepared and coached. That caught the Springboks unawares, but we expect them to be more than ready for us next weekend."

New Zealand's own preparations have included international victories over the last four weekends, one against Fiji, two against Argentina and a 30-13 Bledisloe Cup success over Australia in Christchurch. But that build-up has been disrupted by the possibly permanent loss through injury of Michael Jones. The 32-year-old flanker, a veteran of three World Cups, ruptured a tendon in his left knee against Fiji. He has since had surgery but will not discover until late October whether he can play again.

Having recovered from a similarly serious injury in 1989 Jones, a committed Christian, could well defy the odds and his age to pull on the All Black No 6 shirt once again. And while Hart now finds himself in a position to bed down a younger talent like Charles Reichelmann or Taine Randell, he already misses Jones. "There's no way anyone will replace Michael. He was special."

Talking of special players, Hart also reports that Jonah Lomu is on course to recover from his kidney illness in time for next winter's tour of the British Isles.

Jones and Lomu apart, the rest of the squad are healthy and primed for the battle ahead. But Hart faces a couple of ticklish selection dilemmas, most notably at fly-half where he must choose between Andrew Mehrtens, fit again after a hamstring strain, and the gifted Carlos Spencer.

After their kicking and playmaking nightmares against the Lions, it's a problem South Africawould not mind having. Their powerful pack and recent return to form suggest a close encounter, but the All Blacks' proven ability to triumph in the most hostile environment should see them through.