Southern giants enter battle for leading role in new world order

After destroying the Lions, New Zealand now face real tests against Australia and South Africa in the Tri-Nations. Peter Bills reports from Johannesburg
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The Independent Online

Henry intimated that he is glad the All Blacks will receive a proper examination in the Tri-Nations, which begins in Pretoria this afternoon with the match between South Africa and Australia. For the fact is, the southern hemisphere rugby nations have once again moved ahead of their northern rivals, this time by a significant margin.

Whether that gap can be closed in time for the 2007 World Cup, is a matter of conjecture.

Before he boarded a plane for the flight to South Africa, where the All Blacks will begin their campaign against the Springboks in Cape Town next weekend, Henry confirmed that swing in world power. "With the Tri-Nations you have got the three best teams in the world. We are going to know where we are as a measuring stick. The Lions weren't particularly strong," he said, disarmingly.

New Zealanders, by their nature, deal only in practicalities. Henry understands that the weak challenge of the Lions will be just a distant memory when they confront the powerful Springbok pack in Cape Town. Likewise, the wily Australians who invariably know how to beat New Zealand, will be a stern test, especially in Sydney.

Nor is Henry alone in his assessment. The South Africa coach Jake White talked this week of how closely matched the three southern hemisphere countries are. "Matches between us often come down to who starts best. If you are forced to play catch-up rugby, as the Australians were against us in Johannesburg last Saturday [in the Nelson Mandela Challenge Plate match] then it is very difficult. There is not much between any of us and if you get it wrong on the day, you will lose."

One of the Lions' gross underestimations was of the All Blacks' forward strength. They have worked hard on their tight phases, scrums and line-outs since last year, a factor the so-called "best ever prepared" Lions completely overlooked. With that forward platform now solid and secure, the New Zealanders can unleash their exciting back division, orchestrated by the brilliant Daniel Carter. Inside him, Byron Kelleher will slot into the scrum-half berth vacated by Justin Marshall's move to Leeds with the physical relish of a half-back who plays almost like a ninth forward.

At this stage, it may well be that South Africa will represent the toughest challenge to Henry's men. They are the reigning Tri-Nations champions and returned to form last weekend with a crushing victory over the Wallabies. If they have found the right man to lock their scrum in the tight-head prop C J van der Linde, they can give New Zealand a severe test. Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield comprise probably the No 1 line-out pairing in world rugby, options a'plenty exist in the back row (the dynamic Schalk Burger, last year's IRB Player of the Year, cannot even get into the 'Boks' starting line-up today) and they have discovered a hugely powerful new loose-head prop in Gurthro Steenkamp. Good players seem to fall off the trees in this country, as backs of the class of Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and Breyton Paulse remind us.

South Africa believe they have an advantage by starting with two home games. They contend that could give them crucial early momentum, if they can beat the Wallabies today and follow that with a win over New Zealand next Saturday. It is asking a lot but the Springboks look better equipped to do it than any other side in world rugby. As the Wallaby coach Eddie Jones said this week, "South Africa probably have 45 players of genuine world class." Unlike the 45 the hopeless Lions took on their ill-fated tour.

Inexplicably, the Australians have based themselves in Cape Town for both Tests at altitude, in Johannesburg last week and Pretoria today. They looked sluggish and well off the pace at Ellis Park and dealing with the effects of altitude may again be their biggest problem. But find me a team that believes implicitly in itself and I'll find you a group of Australians. Dousing their competitive embers is never a straightforward task. Of the three countries, they look the weakest in terms of talent. But then, what was a limited Australian team not only reached the last World Cup final but damn nearly did enough to win it. The Wallabies, as ever, will be no one's mugs.

But if South Africa win this afternoon on the high veld, they will set up a corker of a match in the Cape next Saturday. As Henry admits, he will know a whole lot more about the quality of his men and their ability to withstand pressure in those 80 minutes than he learnt from three Test matches against the Lions. It appears Henry is forging a fine All Black team of real class and ability, but nobody will quite know until someone has subjected them to intense examination.

That probably means a massively heavy Springbok forward pack, which collects bruises almost with the pleasure of walkers picking daisies, taking it to them from the start. Do the All Blacks have the firepower up front to handle that test? Can they operate against a South African rush defence which will try to play in their faces? Can they demonstrate the sustained concentration and focus required to defend consistently against a Springbok side that can offer not only a physical threat up front but also pace and skill right down the back line ? The All Blacks' talents going forward are renowned, but Henry is not alone in wondering whether his men can answer all those defensive questions successfully.

Finding out promises to be the best rugby entertainment of the year.

South Africa: P Montgomery; B Paulse, J Fourie, J de Villiers, B Habana; A Pretorius, F du Preez; G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt), CJ van der Linde, B Botha, V Matfield, J van Niekerk, J Smith, J Cronje. Replacements: G Botha, L Sephaka, A van den Berg, S Burger, R Januarie, W Julies, J van der Westhuysen.

Australia: C Latham; W Sailor, M Turinui, M Giteau, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); B Young, J Paul, M Dunning, D Vickerman, N Sharpe, J Roe, G Smith, D Lyons. Replacements: S Moore, A Baxter, M Chisholm, P Waugh, C Whitaker, S Mortlock, D Mitchell.

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).

Tri-Nations

Today South Africa v Australia (Pretoria, 14.00 BST)

6 August South Africa v New Zealand (Cape Town, 14.00)

13 August Australia v New Zealand (Sydney, 11.00)

20 August Australia v South Africa (Perth, 11.00)

27 August New Zealand v South Africa (Dunedin, 08.35)

3 September New Zealand v Australia (Auckland, 08.35)

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