Springboks full of belief for all-in trial of strength

The shuddering impact of bodies involved in high-speed collisions will be felt far beyond Dunedin's Carisbrook stadium. They do not call this place "The House of Pain" without good reason and do not get the top two teams in the world face to face here every week.

It was a surprise, therefore, that yesterday they were still trying to flog the last couple of thousand tickets in a stadium able to hold only 30,000.

It is extraordinary, given that this is the rugby international of 2005. This match represents the quintessential sporting contest, and is certain to be as gladiatorial as they come.

The relish with which Schalk Burger sought out Jerry Collins as the target of his bullocking runs in Cape Town three weeks ago was positively evil. It will be arguably harder in Dunedin tonight.

These Springboks have a chance of a unique trinity of achievements: the first South African side ever to win in Dunedin (they have been trying for 84 years); the first South African team to retain their Tri-Nations title and the first to beat the All Blacks in three successive Test matches for yonks.

The Springboks should believe in themselves. They have a forward pack of considerable might and much skill. Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are the No 1 lock pairing in world rugby not just because they secure their own possession, but because they offer a serious threat to opposition ball. The front row has started to gel now that C J van der Linde is at tight head, and the back row has excelled individually in this competition, if not always collectively.

I am slightly surprised Jake White retained both his half-backs but White has reasoned that Andre Pretorius offers the better kicking option. And kicking is sure to be important tonight, both out of the hand by Pretorius and to goal by Percy Montgomery. This is a match that could go to the wire, and a single goal-kick might mean the difference between triumph and tears.

Nor should the dew factor on a Dunedin winter night be overlooked. Even seasoned All Blacks admit it can be devilishly difficult holding the ball in such conditions, making the chances of an open running game less likely.

De Wet Barry's inclusion at inside centre with the creative Jean de Villiers moved out to the wing signified the South African approach: keep it tight, drive the ball forward, give the pack a target on which to advance and aim at the inexperienced New Zealand half-backs, Piri Weepu and Leon MacDonald.

Physicality is the key to this encounter and quite probably world rugby of the future. The Australia coach Eddie Jones alluded to it this week when he told me: "The game is going back to 1998 when it had such a problem at the breakdown. The breakdown today is like a wrestling match and most players are offside.

"It has become a question just of strength, not skill. And having the ball now for much more than three phases is a liability. There are turnovers and you can concede tries no matter where you are on the field."

But it is the power element that, Jones fears more than most, is starting to dominate the modern game. And when it comes to immense strength few countries are better equipped in that respect than South Africa.

Only New Zealand, who can boast some heavy-hitting players like Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo, Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu, can hope to match them at present in the world game. It means the Springboks can look ahead with optimism as they survey the next two years leading up to the 2007 World Cup.

Indeed, that event is likely to be more of a gladiatorial encounter than the game has known. Men like Jones believe that even the French, traditionally a land of hard rugby players, might struggle to match the physicality of the southern hemisphere. His words were confirmed when South Africa beat France in the recent two-match Test series, in Durban and Port Elizabeth in June.

"Countries that rely on native skill but are not as powerful, may struggle in the future" says the Wallaby coach. "It is the big strong sides like South Africa and New Zealand who will prosper."

The former All Black great Colin Meads admits his concern at whether New Zealand is ready to handle this intensity. "The Lions tour was hopeless for us, it was so easy it gave us a completely false impression of how good we are" he said.

New Zealand should know more by tonight.

Victory for South Africa would cap an extraordinary 18 months for White. His impact as national coach has been immense and to land these achievements that dangle enticingly before his men, would be proof positive that South African rugby is definitely on the up.

The prize awaiting the 'Boks is great. Unfortunately, the team standing between them and glory is pretty special, too.

New Zealand (probable): A Woodcock; K Mealamu, C Hayman, C Jack, A Williams; J Collins, R McCaw; R So'oialo, P Weepu, L MacDonald, J Rokocoko, A Mauger, T Umaga, R Gear, M Muliaina. Replacements: D Witcombe, G Somerville, J Ryan, S Lauali, K Senio, L McAlister, D Howlett.

South Africa (probable): O du Randt; J Smit, C J van der Linde, B Botha, V Matfield, J Smith; S Burger, J van Niekerk; E Januarie, A Pretorius, B Habana, D Barry, J Fourie, J de Villiers, P Montgomery. Replacements: H Shimange, E Andrews, A van den Berg, J Cronje, F du Preez, J van den Westhuyzen, M Joubert.

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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