Preview: South Africa v New Zealand

This is it! Both coaches have played it down this week, but there is little doubt in most minds that this is dress rehearsal, part one, for October’s Rugby World Cup final.

Both are behaving like it already is the World Cup final. There have been police guards at training, and there has been aloofness from both teams in their dealings with the media this week, with sessions heavily-policed by the gatekeepers of information and restricted to the barest minimum of time.

It seems, from the late changes to the Bok team, that they at least have good reason to throw up the cloaks of secrecy. If politics has bedevilled Jake White’s previous attempts to field his first-choice team up to now, in the week that matters it is injury sneaking up to apply the rubber to the pencilled names on the team-sheet. The losses of John Smit and Juan Smith were anticipated blows, but the sudden additional loss of Pierre Spies will leave a hole that cannot be filled.

Politics may still be wrapping up White’s mission in red tape behind the scenes – it is rumoured that Ashwin Willemse’s place in the side would have been Frans Steyn’s but for a command from a higher being – but publicly at least, there appears to be a blessedly united front about the Boks’ preparations for Saturday’s clash.

New Zealand have never been anything but united since Graham Henry took over, and the team has been quietly bubbling up all week, with energetic training sessions, clean bills of health, and confident arrogance pervading every movement.

Henry’s cotton-wool policy of resting his players at the start of the season has paid a rich dividend. While the injuries creeping into the Bok squad – muscular tears and deep bruises – are those that you would normally associate with tiring players nearing the business end of an abrasive season, Henry’s troop is enjoying the effervescence of battle-hardened health that a team has after stepping its way through the minefield of early-season niggles.

It is this that will give them the edge in Saturday’s encounter. The slow speed of the Boks’ recovery from the hammering dished out by Australia last weekend has left them precious little time to get the matchday structures right, and although you can argue that New Zealand have had just as little time because of the jet-lag involved in the long journey, the brief glances afforded of their training have revealed a team anything but weary. Monday’s training session was marked by a caterwaul of whoops and battle-cries as things went right.

The injuries have hit the Boks where it really hurts. Smit’s absence will be filled by Gary Botha in the loose, and Botha’s runs may tempt the Boks into a more open style of play, but Anton Oliver was right when he hinted that the Bok scrum will now be easier to split down the middle. Botha is good, but he is not the scrummager Smit is.

In the back row, Smith’s absence removes some of the speedy dynamic from the Boks’ hard-hitting game, and Spies’ absence merely exacerbates that. With Bob Skinstad, the Boks have a ball player, but not the battering ram hitherto favoured by White.

The Boks have lost key elements of their preferred weapons of choice – scrum and back-row charge, and in other aspects, the All Blacks are streets ahead. Out wide there is no comparison between the two teams whether Jaque Fourie is injured or fit, and although White waxed lyrical about the Boks’ ball retention skills on Wednesday, New Zealand won’t really need all that much ball to get the necessary points. Up front, the Boks’ slight edge has been lost, and if they are forced into an open game, they may end up signing their own death warrant.

Neither coach believes, publicly, that it would be a setback to World Cup preparations if defeated, but the Boks, at home and on a roll, have far more to lose and far more pressure on them to win. Losing away from home in the Tri-Nations opener would not be a hug

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