Sunday, June 27, 2010

Heavyweight title clashes with Springboks loom
NZPA - (26/06/2010)

Two looming showdowns with South Africa is adding considerable spice to tonight's final pre Investec Tri Nations rugby test against Wales here.

While the New Zealand players and management have delivered all the usual platitudes about not looking too far ahead, it is apparent half an eye is on tests against the Springboks in Auckland on July 10 and Wellington a week later.

The Tri Nations squad is named tomorrow and a lack of clarity about the numbers coach Graham Henry can choose and uncertainty over injuries means there are question marks surrounding the makeup.

Most, if not all, of the 26-strong group named for tests against Ireland and Wales will be included but Henry couldn't say how many more players he would add.

"We just need to see where we're at on Saturday night and see whether we've got more injuries," he said."When we add it all up at the end of the week... we'll get a firmer idea on numbers. It's been difficult this series, bringing guys in to cover all the time. It's been more beneficial having them in the squad."

Fullback Israel Dagg, centre Conrad Smith and lock Anthony Boric were all ruled out of tonight's second Welsh test with relatively minor injuries and are all expected to be named.

Training with the squad has been regular second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu, who is sure to be added if his injured knee comes through a Wellington club match today.

Nonu's return and the arrival of midfielder Luke McAlister on All Blacks standby this week places pressure on Auckland No 12 Benson Stanley, who makes his third successive test start tonight. Stanley has defended stoutly in the big wins over Ireland at New Plymouth and Wales at Dunedin although his ball maintenance has been suspect.

Others knocking on the door of call ups are tonight's reserve outside back Rene Ranger, lock Sam Whitelock, prop/hooker John Afoa and a handful of players from the successful New Zealand Maori campaign -- most notably McAlister, winger Hosea Gear, loose forwards Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer and hooker Corey Flynn.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw admitted the Tri-Nations selection was a hard one to ignore for some All Blacks who would have points to prove at Waikato Stadium.

"I'm sure it adds a wee bit of edge. That's a great thing, hopefully it lifts the standard," he said."There was a lot of talk a couple of months ago about lack of depth but there's a lot of players who have put their hands up, whether it be from the Maori or this team."

Forward coach Steve Hansen said methods had been adjusted during the June tests to prepare for a Springboks side who beat them in all three 2009 fixtures and who shape as an enormous challenge again after South Africa's domination of the Super 14.

"Last year, South Africa's game caused us some difficulties and we've had to adjust some of our skill sets because of how their game is, to combat it," Hansen said."You've still got to do the job up front and we struggled at lineout time against South Africa. Things are going well in that area, there's an air of confidence about what we're doing and it's just a matter of continuing with that."

McCaw said a full 80-minute performance would be demanded tonight. They dominated the first half against Ireland and the second half last Saturday against Wales but struggled to impose themselves during other periods of both tests.It is a matter not logging off mentally.

"We let the Welsh put pressure on us down our own end of the field before the momentum of the game changed," McCaw said."The week before, against Ireland, it went the other way. It just shows that if you stop doing the little jobs that perhaps everyone doesn't see, then things can change pretty quickly."

Wales coach Warren Gatland hopes his side can continue the physical pounding they delivered in the first half at Carisbrook, as long as it lasts until the fulltime whistle.

"One positive out of Saturday -- we didn't win the game but at least we battered a few of them as much as we got battered ourselves," he said."The body will go as far as the mind tells it to in terms of that physical confrontation. There's no tougher place to come and experience that physical confrontation than New Zealand. I've made it clear it was ok for 40 minutes but not ok for 80 minutes."

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