White's men face trial by All Blacks

Graham Henry's Lions tamers are about to test South Africa's revival to the limit, writes Peter Bills in Cape Town
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The Independent Online

That journey has been made in reverse this week as countless numbers of South Africans have headed south to Cape Town, drawn like moths to the flame by the allure of today's Tri-Nations international between the Springboks and the All Blacks. The hopes and fervent ambitions of this rugby-loving land are with South Africa's players as they prepare to tackle New Zealand.

Today's international at Newlands is so much more than just another Tri-Nations meeting with South African rugby's greatest foe.

Two very significant factors give the match so much added spice, like a decent sauce getting a clove of garlic. Firstly, as the world rugby rankings stand, these two countries are No 1 and No 2. Secondly, this is the acid test of just how far Jake White and Graham Henry have brought their teams. Both will be offered a yardstick this afternoon by these 80 minutes, more so than any other opponents can provide.

It is not only South Africa who will be tested this afternoon on the famous Newlands pitch. New Zealand's Test outings thus far this year have been lopsided contests. They flogged Fiji 91-0 and brushed aside the irrelevant challenge of the dismal British and Irish Lions. The third Test in that series was won before half-time. Is that a proper rugby contest?

Furthermore, they have not played for four weeks, potentially a long and damaging interlude in a rugby team's schedule.

By contrast, the Springboks are battle-hardened, mentally and physically attuned by three Tests against Australia in the past three weeks. They may be the better prepared of the two sides today, but they will need to play much better than last week against the Wallabies, when they won 22-16 in a game they could, and should, have lost.

Can New Zealand handle the significant pressure of an opposition playing in their faces, denying them time and space to plot their wily paths? The Lions certainly did not do that and even the fancied French capitulated in Paris last November. The Springboks will not shirk the physical challenge today.

Key elements of what is surely a contest that is too tight to call will prove crucial. The Springbok line-out must be right on the money on its own ball and challenge the All Black jumpers on theirs.

The back row must somehow shackle the great Richie McCaw, New Zealand's open-side flanker, the best in the world. And if the blind-side Schalk Burger cannot slow down the All Blacks' ball supply from second phase, then the Springbok defence is in for a torrid afternoon.

South Africa need to acquire go-forward ball of their own if we are to see the creative genius of Jean de Villiers and the corking pace of Bryan Habana, Breyton Paulse and Jaque Fourie unleashed out wide.

But the game will be won in the mind, too. Do the Springboks really believe, deep down, that they are good enough to beat these All Blacks? Are they prepared to dig deeper than ever before to prove themselves? Can they put pressure on New Zealand from the first whistle and never release their grip? Will they forsake personal physical safety for the cause? Can they retain their iron focus and concentration throughout the 80 minutes?

Today at Newlands represents the summit of world rugby.

South Africa: P Montgomery; B Paulse, J Fourie, J de Villiers, B Habana; A Pretorius, E Januarie; O du Randt, J Smit (capt), C J van der Linde, B Botha, V Matfield, S Burger, J Smith, J van Niekerk. Replacements: H Shimange, G Steenkamp, A van den Berg; J Cronje, F du Preez, W Julies, J van der Westhuyzen.

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

Referee: A Cole (Australia).