South Africa will be under pressure to show that their rugby World Cup planning is on track when they meet New Zealand in a Tri-Nations Test at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium today.
The match comes just three days before both countries announce their squads for next month’s World Cup in New Zealand.
The world champion Springboks are rooted firmly to the bottom of the southern hemisphere championship table after losing their three previous matches, including a home game against Australia in Durban last weekend when they were beaten 14-9 despite fielding what appeared to be their strongest available team.
South Africa have made five changes from the side that played in Durban, but have again picked most of the players expected to start their World Cup campaign against Wales on Sept. 11 in Wellington.
They will be seeking a convincing performance against a weakened New Zealand team with the All Blacks leaving nine of their leading players at home to rest ahead of the World Cup.
The New Zealand team includes only four of the players who beat Australia 30-14 in Auckland on Aug. 6 in their most recent match.
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers shrugged off criticism of his build-up tactics and insisted to journalists in this Eastern Cape coastal city that his long-term plan for the World Cup remained in place, including the decision to start regular captain John Smit from the bench, with lock Victor Matfield taking over the captaincy.
“The plan was always to rest John for this match, as far back as May 4 when we had a big planning meeting. Everything that is happening in our camp is according to planning going back to that meeting,” De Villiers said.
Part of that plan was to rest most of South Africa’s top players for the away leg of the Tri-Nations, when the Springboks suffered two heavy defeats. When the star players returned against Australia many looked rusty and leaden-footed.
Jake White, who coached the Springboks to victory in the 2007 World Cup, using many of the players who will be defending the crown next month, led criticism of the way the players have been managed.
White claimed on his Web site that the Springboks appeared to lack general fitness and he also expressed doubts about the team’s defensive system.
Several players are under pressure to justify their inclusion in the World Cup squad, including flyhalf Morne Steyn, whose general play has failed to match his goal-kicking prowess. It is still not certain whether Steyn or Butch James will be the starting flyhalf at the World Cup.
While the Springboks appear to be floundering ahead of the defense of their world crown, the All Blacks have been in formidable form.
Even without stars such as captain and flank Richie McCaw and match-winning flyhalf Dan Carter, they will still have high hopes of a win to stretch their lead at the top of the Tri-Nations table.
The absence of Carter enables Colin Slade to make his second run-on appearance at flyhalf and he has some exciting backs outside him, including the dynamic center pairing of Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams, who will be playing together in a Test for the first time.
Coach Graham Henry said the All Blacks had prepared well in Port Elizabeth and the team was feeling refreshed and raring to go.
“There is excitement across the board in the squad and every player will be looking to put in a big performance,” he said.