Coach Graham Henry has left no doubt that in the eyes of the All Blacks beating South Africa remains the pinnacle of international rugby.
Toby Robson writes for the Fairfax Media that Henry was at his humorous best in an entertaining half hour with South Africa’s media, but was clearly serious in his message that the Springbok is rugby’s most prized game.
After naming an unchanged starting side for Saturday’s pivotal Tri-Nations match at Newlands, the former headmaster gave a brief history lesson to about 30 scribes to illustrate his point.
“I remember my first rugby test I ever saw was in 1956 at Lancaster Park when the Springboks played the All Blacks,” the 62-year-old mused.
“In 1949 it was a clean sweep in South Africa, 4-nil to the Springboks and the country was in mourning. They had to resurrect the game in New Zealand and they managed to win the next series 3-1, that was in 1956, and everyone was happy again.”
The ledger between the two teams remained “hugely important” and Henry said he believed the current series, tied one each this year, involved the best two sides in the world.
“It’s the number one rugby match up in the world. We can say that because there are South Africans and Kiwis sitting here,” he said.
“If there were English and French they would say we are arrogant, but that’s our background and that’s how we’ve been brought up in New Zealand and I imagine it’s the same in South Africa.”
Henry said it did not take long to reselect the side that had beaten Australia in Auckland with Isaia Toeava’s selection on the reserves due to his ability to cover fullback, the midfield and wing.
Richard Kahui’s retention on the wing was reward for a good effort in Auckland and better suited the way the All Blacks planned to play than Anthony Tuitavake, he said.
Though nice to be able to name a settled run-on side, Henry made no excuses for the changing his line-up in each of the season’s previous eight tests.
“In New Zealand they call that rotation. I call it commonsense,” he said. “We aren’t looking to change for change’s sake, we are looking to put the best side on the field.”
Henry said most of the changes had been forced by injury, bar a few exceptions where different players were deemed more suited to the opposition.
Earlier in the day that opponent was revealed with South African coach Peter de Villiers surprising the local pundits by selecting halfback Fourie du Preez and fullback Percy Montgomery, who will start in his 100th test.
Both Henry and backs coach Wayne Smith lauded the return of du Preez, who made a strong return from injury against Argentina.
“He’s a great player. He’s the best halfback in the world. That’s just my view, but he is a great player,” Smith said.
Du Preez and Montgomery replace Dunedin hero Ricky Januarie and Conrad Jantjes in a starting line-up that indicates South Africa will put a strong emphasis on their kicking game.
The other significant changes are in the pack where Andries Bekker comes in for the injured Bakkies Botha at lock and Tendai Mtawarira starts at loose head prop.
Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies form and impressive loose trio, while flanker Luke Watson, lock Danie Rossouw and back Frans Steyn return to the reserves.Tweet