Sat, Jul 19, 2003 - Page 20 News List

All Blacks, South Africa recommence battle in Tri-nations

REUTERS , PRETORIA

The historic traditions of tests between South Africa and New Zealand will surface in today's Tri-nations test in Pretoria, despite the growing hype of World Cup year.

The All Blacks have dominated this fixture since South Africa's return from sporting isolation, winning 16 of 23 tests to reverse the Springboks' historical advantage.

New Zealand have won seven of the last nine meetings and all of the last four but the home side are as confident as they have been in recent seasons of claiming a rare victory.

Their unexpected 26-22 victory over Australia in Cape Town to open the tournament has restored confidence and added spice to a fixture whose prominence had declined on the international calendar.

All Black center Tana Umaga said, "There's such a fierce rivalry and a long tradition between our two countries. When you think about your toughest games they've been when you've played South Africa. It's a war of attrition sometimes.

"Last year's game in Durban was another tough, physical encounter, and then there was that guy running onto the field. That was bizarre," he said.

The "guy" was a drunken South African supporter who assaulted referee David McHugh of Ireland, leaving him with a dislocated shoulder.

There is likely to be a frenzied atmosphere at Loftus Versfeld -- the home of Afrikaner rugby -- with five of the local Blue Bulls in the starting XV and two more, in flyhalf Louis Koen and looseforward Wikus van Heerden, who were drafted to Pretoria for the Super 12 season.

"When Loftus is packed it's awesome to play there," said Springbok lock Victor Matfield. "I think it may be the most hostile crowd in the country, with all the Afrikaans `boertjies' [farm boys] there. And if you're in the lead they're just crazy."

Matfield is one of four Blue Bulls in the tight five -- the exception is loosehead Lawrence Sephaka of the Lions -- and they have done much to refurbish the reputation of Springbok packs this year.

They have given Koen the platform to kick the Springboks to victory in four successive matches -- in three of which they were outscored in tries.

It has set the game up as a contest between the running game of the All Blacks and the tighter game of the Springboks.

"We just need the ball, really," said All Black wing Doug Howlett. "It will be good to play on a dry field with a dry ball. We haven't had that in the first three tests.

"The passes will come out a lot faster and hopefully we'll get a bit of time to run and show what we can do. If Louis Koen is going to kick a lot and give us the ball we'd love to run it back at him," he said.

The All Blacks have made three changes with Aaron Mauger replacing Daniel Carter at inside center, Keven Mealamu starting at hooker in place of Anton Oliver and Carl Hoeft taking Dave Hewett's place at loosehead prop.

The Springboks' three changes were forced by injury -- fullback Brent Russell, center Andre Snyman and wing Ashwin Willemse replace Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Marius Joubert and Thinus Delport respectively.

Meanwhile All Black coach John Mitchell was simply looking forward to the latest instalment in a storied rivalry.

"We have the prospect of a fantastic test ahead of us," he said. "I can think of no better challenge than to start our Tri-nations program against our traditional rivals at a venue on the highveld such as Loftus."

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