Tri-Nations showdown steeped in history

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The Independent Online

The venue for Saturday's Tri-Nations showdown between New Zealand and South Africa is one that has special significance for the visiting Springboks.

In 1956 they came unstuck against the Waikato provincial side at Rugby Park - now Waikato Stadium - going down 14-10 in front of 32,000 fans.

But it was the ill-fated tour of 1981 that most people remember, particularly the match that was due to take place between the South Africans and Waikato.

In the end the match never took place as hundreds of apartheid protesters stormed the field prior to kick-off and could not be removed in time for the game to go ahead.

The tour proved to be one of the most divisive events in New Zealand history with protests staged right around the country as a large section of the population showed their opposition to the New Zealand Rugby Union maintaining ties with a country which legislated on the basis of colour.

But following the dismantling of apartheid, South Africa were welcomed back into the international fold in 1992 and two years later they toured New Zealand again where they beat Waikato 38-17 in Hamilton.

This Saturday, Waikato Stadium will host its first Test match between two of rugby's biggest nations and Springboks captain John Smit said it would be a chance to celebrate the progress South Africa has made since the dark days of apartheid.

"We've got an opportunity to be able to celebrate how far we've come since '81 as a country.

"To be able to celebrate that, there's no better way than using rugby and playing for our country against the All Blacks who are the greatest foe.

"It's a wonderfully positive thing to be able to do so and see just how far as a country we've come in such a short period of time."

Saturday night will however be all about the rugby with the Springboks only one bonus point away from earning just their third Tri-Nations title.

"By focusing solely on the game and each other and representing our country that will be testament to the direction we've taken as a country since that time."

Both Smit and his opposite number Richie McCaw have spoken about the respect the two teams have for each other.

But that will be put to one side with so much at stake this weekend. Despite their two losses in South Africa, the All Blacks are not yet out of the running to claim their fifth successive Tri-Nations title if they can get a bonus-point win and prevent the Springboks from gaining their all-important bonus point in the process.

"The South Africans, for all the years have always been the tough rival and nothing's changed now," said McCaw.

"We realise every time we play them we've got to be at the top of our game, otherwise we come second.

"We've seen that this year. It's still an exciting thing to put the jersey on and play against them."

Much has been made of New Zealand's need to score four tries on Saturday, something they have failed to do since beating Scotland in Edinburgh at the end of last year.

But McCaw stressed the team's focus was on improving their performance - which has been scratchy all season - and getting the win.

"The desire is there. We just haven't got the execution right. We have trained reasonably well this week to ensure that we get that.

"It would be nice to finish off or get Saturday right with a good performance.

"First and foremost we have to go out to perform and look to win the Test match. What happens after that, you see how the game unfolds."