South Africa, winners of a bruising British and Irish Lions series, expect their opening Tri Nations match against holders New Zealand today to be the real test of their abilities. The world champions are predicting a high tempo game in Bloemfontein against the All Blacks who started their title defence with a 22-16 victory over Australia last weekend. "It was a very big series for us against the Lions because it only comes around once in 12 years, but the level will definitely lift against the All Blacks," the South Africa vice captain Victor Matfield said.
"I still believe the Tri Nations is the toughest competition in rugby. Playing the All Blacks is still the ultimate, to stand in your Springbok jersey and face the haka, it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. "It's tough to say which way the series will go, particularly after New Zealand beat Australia last weekend. "It won't be easy but in my eight years of being with the Springboks I've only won one Tri Nations. It would be good to win another one."
New Zealand have made two changes to the team who beat the Wallabies, bringing in scrum-half Brendon Leonard and wing Joe Rokocoko to give them with more pace on a hard, dry surface in Bloemfontein that traditionally favours running rugby. "There was a certain amount of kicking against Australia, but when you look at the stats - Australia made 160-odd tackles and we made 110 - they show that we kept the ball in hand more. We will try to play more rugby this week too," the New Zealand coach Graham Henry said.
Rokocoko has dished up pain for the Springboks before, scoring nine tries against them, one short of Christian Cullen's record against South Africa. South Africa have lost their last two home matches against the All Blacks, having been beaten 19-0 in Cape Town last year and 26-21 in Durban in 2007. The All Black hooker Andrew Hore is confident the team will show further improvement in their scrums in today's game.
"It's a work in progress. We are building away. We are slowly getting up to where we were," he told Radio Sport. "We'll keep working on that and hopefully we can get better every game and be pretty good by the end of it." "It's always been pretty tough up front. Probably a good thing about their front row is they have played all the Super 14 together so they will know each other's strengths and how they can do stuff on different angles, which should mean quite a tough test.
"We went not too bad against Australia and hopefully we can take another couple of steps up and mix it with these big boys on Saturday." * With agencies