New Zealand and South Africa are the first to lock horns tomorrow at Eden Park – with Irish referee Alan Lewis the man in the middle – and both All Black lock Brad Thorn and Springbok talisman Victor Matfield have identified that set-piece as a potential deciding factor.
When asked about possible All Blacks weaknesses, Matfield kicked off the mind games by stating in no uncertain terms the lineout would be targeted in a bid to erode the hosts’ self-confidence.
“We work hard on and are very proud of our lineouts. We’ll definitely go into the Test trying to put them under pressure there. Hopefully, getting one or two balls early can let them think back about the past few games. It’s going to be important for us,” Matfield said.
“If they attack our lineout and miss, then we get our opportunity to have a good drive. Do they want to stop our drive, or go for the (aerial) contest?”
South Africa won all three meetings between the two sides in the 2009 Tri Nations and Thorn is expecting a similarly strong Boks outfit.
“It’s a great test, South Africa are really strong at the moment. To me, I think that is great. The Springboks are traditional rivals and you want them at their best,” he said.
Thorn admitted the New Zealand lineout stumbled last year after an impressive 2008 and is hoping they can get back on track.
“The Tri Nations is the major competition in the world each year so I guess we’ll see where it (the lineout) is at,” he said. “It’s just a great competition of six games of absolute tough rugby. I played in the World Cup, it far surpassed that for me. We’re lucky to play it each year.”
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers yesterday named an experienced side for the opener, with Matfield and Botha reforming their imposing locking combination.
In a surprise move, former Munster man Jean de Villiers was switched to the right wing, breaking his midfield partnership with centre Jaque Fourie, while Bulls inside-centre Wynand Oliver gets first dibs on the number 12 jersey. Zane Kirchner held off the battle from Gio Aplon at full-back in a starting side boasting 661 Test caps.
The Springboks have not won at Eden Park since 1937, but that is not a statistic which worries Matfield.
“The history is there to be changed,” Matfield said. “Eden Park is home for the All Blacks. They are at their best there. It will be tough, but we don’t expect anything less. We’ve got a lot of belief in ourselves and what we are doing. We trust each other.”
Meanwhile, Australia coach Robbie Deans admits his side deserve to enter the Tri Nations as rank outsiders.
The Wallabies, who last lifted the trophy in 2001, managed a solitary victory over South Africa in Brisbane last season.
And while the encouraging form of the Australian Super 14 franchises this season led to renewed optimism heading into the June Tests, a shock loss to England and an unconvincing win over Ireland would hardly have struck fear into the hearts of the All Blacks and Springboks.
“They’ve come out of June in great shape both of them, there’s no doubt,” Deans said of the Wallabies’ Tri Nations foes.
“And hence they’re ranked one and two in the world and there’s some distance back to the rest of the world, that’s evident. And we’re chasing. The rankings are pretty clear, that’s our challenge and our opportunity is to try and adjust our place in the world.”
They don’t begin their campaign for another fortnight, when they tackle the Boks in Brisbane on July 24.
NEW ZEALAND: M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Rokocoko; D Carter, J Cowan; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks; B Thorn, T Donnelly; J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read.
Replacements: C Flynn, B Franks, S Whitelock, L Messam, P Weepu, A Cruden, R Kahui.
SOUTH AFRICA: Z Kirchner; J de Villiers, J Fourie, W Oliver, B Habana; M Steyn, R Januarie; G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt), J du Plessis; V Matfield, B Botha; S Burger, F Louw, P Spies.
Replacements: C Ralepelle, BJ Botha, A Bekker, D Rossouw, R Pienaar, B James, G Aplon.