Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 20 News List

New format may benefit Springboks

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY South Africans say time zone differences and travel place them at a disadvantage in Super 12 competition, but the field may soon level out

AP , WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALANDAP, LONDON, CARDIFF, WALES, MARCOUSSIS, FRANCE AND ROMEAP, WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND

The Queensland Reds made the semifinals in three of the first six Super 12 tournaments, but have missed out the past four years when injuries and retirements exposed a lack of depth in some key positions.

"There is hardly a need for any extra motivation to win the Super 12 but the fact that it is the final year certainly gives it a special meaning," said captain Elton Flatley. "We're totally focused on getting Queensland engraved on that trophy before the competition expands."

New Zealand's Super 12 season will be overshadowed by the impending tour of the British and Irish Lions.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry has taken a personal interest in the preparation of the five New Zealand franchises as he tries to build a national lineup to repel the Lions.

While British observers condemn the Super 12 as a "fluffy" style of rugby, Henry is sure it will adequately prepare the All Blacks for the Lions tour.

"I think it's a marvelous competition. I know the Northern Hemisphere [critics] say its nothing but a glorified game of 15-man sevens, but I think the things we did on the northern tour last year reflect some of the stuff that happened in the Super 12."

Auckland and Canterbury are expected to lead the Kiwi challenge again, while the Wellington Hurricanes, led by All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga, are destined to improve on their 11th placing last season.

The Blues won the first three Super 12s and again in 2003, and boast dangerous attacking backline options in Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett, Carlos Spencer and Mils Muliaina.

The Crusaders, runnersup last season, have won four Super 12 titles. They'll be led this year by All Blacks flanker Richie McCaw and can draw on the vast experience of scrumhalf Justin Marshall, flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens and match-winning goalkicker Daniel Carter.

Otago captain Anton Oliver will become the first New Zealander to play 100 Super 12 games when the Highlanders open against the Blues on Friday.

Prop Matt Stevens was named in England's starting lineup on Tuesday for the first time ahead of this weekend's Six Nations match against Ireland.

Stevens, 22, is the only change to the side that lost 18-17 to France on Feb. 13.

He takes over from injured forward Phil Vickery, who broke his arm last Saturday, for Sunday's match at Lansdowne Road.

Stevens earned two England caps as a replacement last summer in New Zealand.

"I'm thrilled for Matt and am confident he will grasp this opportunity and make his mark against Ireland," England coach Andy Robinson said. "He has impressed in training and has been building up to this for some time now."

Prop Duncan Bell, who was called up to the senior squad for the first time this week, was named on the bench along with center Ollie Smith and flyhalf Andy Goode.

"All three players have shown outstanding form of late, most recently in the England A win against France A and for their club," Robinson said. "Selection beckons when players demonstrate such consistent ability."

Flyhalf Charlie Hodgson and center Olly Barkley kept their starting spots. Both missed three penalties each and Hodgson also sent a drop goal wide against France.

Teenager Mathew Tait, who started in England's 11-9 opening Six Nations loss to Wales, was again absent from the team.

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