Rugby World Cup: Giants line up with more than pride at stake

RUGBY WORLD CUP South Africa and New Zealand, the game's greatest nations, still have everything to play for in the third place play-off
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RASSIE ERASMUS, the outstanding Springbok flanker, could barely contain his laughter as he turned his thoughts towards tonight's World Cup play-off at the Millennium Stadium; not because he found the prospect of facing the All Blacks on a cold Thursday night in Cardiff remotely amusing, but because it had just been suggested that the match might not mean much to either side.

"We're talking about a South Africa-New Zealand game here," he reminded his questioner, politely but firmly. "There's a bit of history involved, to say the least. I think it matters. In fact, I know it matters."

The two greatest rugby nations on earth first collided in Dunedin in August 1921 and have fought their way, tooth and nail, through 53 unremittingly physical Tests. It was always a reasonable bet that the 54th would occur during this tournament, although no one gambled too much of the folding stuff on it being played out in the minor key of a third-place decider. "It's not the game either side was looking for," admitted Erasmus. "But when all is said and done, it's an honour for any Springbok to share a pitch with the All Blacks. This one won't be short on intensity."

It will be short of one or two big names, though. By omitting Robin Brooke, the long-serving Auckland lock and veteran of the 1995 final, from his 22-man squad, the All Black coach John Hart has almost certainly drawn a line under one of the very few 60-cap careers in New Zealand rugby. Anton Oliver, the Otago hooker who began this tournament on the wrong end of a positive drugs test and finished it on the painful end of a hiding from the French tight forwards, has also been dropped, although at 24 he will get far more opportunities to resurrect his career at the top level than the 32-year-old Brooke.

The Springboks go in without Jannie de Beer, the proud custodian of the Boot of God, and Bobby Skinstad, the over-hyped firecracker from Cape Town who fizzled out of the competition last Saturday with all the explosive extravagance of a damp squib. De Beer, a thoroughly good egg despite what they say about him at Sale (his decision to play his rugby in Pretoria rather than Cheshire next season still rankles west of the Pennines), relinquished his hold on the No 10 shirt voluntarily to allow Henry Honiball a final taste of the international big time before joining Bristol next week. In strict geographical terms, less than 40 miles separate Cardiff from the English West Country. In sporting terms, the distance Honiball is about to travel is immeasurable.

South Africa should start as favourites, if only because they are less distraught than their opponents by the dramatic events of last weekend. While the inexperienced New Zealanders imploded against the Tricolores and received a savaging back home, the battle-hardened Boks at least fronted up against the Wallabies and fought deep into extra time before turning up their toes. They appear hungrier for this one.

"It's important that we beat the All Blacks," asserted Joost Van der Westhuizen yesterday. "They've beaten us twice this season and we need to redress the balance." By comparison, the New Zealand vice-captain, Jeff Wilson, was seriously down-beat. "If you have to get back on the horse straight away, a play-off against the Springboks is probably the best way," he said, unconvincingly. "It's impossible to envisage a game between us that isn't for real, but we're still hurting from the semi- final."

At least the tournament organisers have reinforced the game's competitive status by insisting that the losers must qualify for the 2003 tournament. Part of that competition will be played in New Zealand - or the Land of the Long White Shroud, as it is now known - but as Australia is the official host nation, the All Blacks will not get in for free should they go pear- shaped again tonight. Unless the committee-room blazers agree to shift the goal-posts (a favourite pastime of theirs, admittedly) only three sides will gain automatic entry: the Wallabies, France and this evening's winners. If the All Blacks slip up, they may well find themselves playing their first full-on Tests in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in a couple of years' time. Oh, the irony of it.

NEW ZEALAND V SOUTH AFRICA

at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

J Wilson Otago 15 P Montgomerie W Province

T Umaga Wellington 14 B Paulse W Province

C Cullen Wellington 13 R Fleck W Province

A Ieremia Wellington 12 P Muller Natal

J Lomu Counties Manukau 11 S Terblanche Natal

A Mehrtens Canterbury 10 H Honiball Natal

J Marshall Canterbury 9 J Van der Westhuizen Bulls, capt

C Dowd Auckland 1 O Du Randt Free State

M Hammett Canterbury 2 N Drotske Free State

K Meeuws Otago 3 C Visagie W Province

N Maxwell Canterbury 4 K Otto Bulls

R Willis Waikato 5 M Andrews Natal

R Thorne Canterbury 6 J Erasmus Golden Lions

J Kronfeld Otago 7 A Venter Free State

T Randell Otago, capt 8 A Vos Golden Lions

Referee: P Marshall (Australia) Kick-off: 8.0 (HTV Wales, ITV2, Eurosport)

Replacements: 16 P Alatini (Otago), 17 T Brown (Otago), 18 R Duggan (Waikato), 19 D Mika (Auckland), 20 I Jones (North Harbour), 21 C Hoeft (Otago), 22 A Oliver (Otago).

Replacements: 16 W Julies (Boland), 17 J De Beer (Free State), 18 W Swanepoel (Golden Lions), 19 R Kruger (Blue Bulls), 20 A Van den Berg (Griqualand West), 21 O Le Roux (Natal), 22 C Rossouw (Natal).

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