Very rarely is the Tri Nations tournament settled within two games, but there’s a faint whiff of that possibility heading into this weekend’s clash between South Africa and New Zealand.
The All Blacks threw down the gauntlet with an inspiring performance last weekend in Auckland, carrying a 20-3 lead into the halftime break before easing to a 32-13 win over a South African side that put in one of its worst performances in recent memory. New Zealand fly half Dan Carter led the scoring with 12 points, all from his deadly-accurate left foot.
Tri Nations winners six times out of the last eight, another result of similar nature in Wellington would set the All Blacks in the driver’s seat — with Australia a bit of a unknown commodity, this year’s incarnation of the tournament is largely a contest between New Zealand and South Africa — on their way to a ninth overall title since 1996, when the battle for South Hemisphere supremacy was born.
However, it must be said that pressure remains on New Zealand, rugby’s number one ranked side that is preparing to host the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Success there has eluded the All Blacks, only winning the first-ever tournament back in 1987.
Still, the Springboks have it all to do, and coach Peter de Villiers must be concerned about his side’s chances. Lock Bakkies Botha will be unavailable after a rash headbutt in the opener landed him a nine-week suspension, all but ruling him out for the rest of the Tri Nations. More concerning from South Africa’s perspective was the inability to match the high intensity level brought by the All Blacks. Swift ball movement, pace on the outside, didn’t reflect a battle between the world’s top two ranked sides, at least according to the IRB.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry has already named a similar XV for the second meeting in Wellington. The ‘Boks need performances from Morne Steyn, who was bottled up by a ferocious defense in the opener, and flashy winger Brian Habana to get South Africa back on track. Steyn showed his ability in a 26-point performance against Italy early this year, but the Azzurri and All Blacks are in two different stratospheres of talent. De Villiers continues to show faith in Stormers scrum half Rickiy Januarie, causing criticism by the home press.
In reality, all won’t be lost if the ‘Boks succumb by a small margin of defeat at Westpac Stadium. Losing by double digits would take their point differential well into the negative 30s or 40s, and make the task of coming back and contending all the more difficult. What it would do is necessitate a result against Australia, a side under transition under Kiwi coach Robbie Deans, who lie in wait July 24 in Brisbane.
History doesn’t favor South Africa — losing the last meeting in Wellington 19-8 back in July 2008. Reversing momentum this weekend is crucial if the Springboks hope to defend their Tri Nations title.
Here’s a look at last weekend’s highlights.
If you have plans to watch, it takes a lot of dedication. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:35 AM on the East Coast, early Saturday morning. Pay viewing options are here.