Eden Park may still have some way to go before its facelift is complete in time for next year's Rugby World Cup, but the host nation, New Zealand, appear ready to contend for the Webb Ellis trophy now. The All Blacks opened their bid to regain the Tri Nations title with a comprehensive, four-try win over the current world champions, South Africa, in front of 25,000 spectators in Auckland. The capacity will have doubled by the time the World Cup kicks off.
Even without the subplot of the No 1 place in the IRB standings being at stake, as it was yesterday, New Zealand versus South Africa ranks as the biggest fixture in international rugby. The nations share a heritage in the game which is beyond compare, yet both were in the unprecedented position of having had their limelight stolen in recent weeks. If it is rare for the Springboks to have to vie for attention with their football-playing countrymen, then the same experience is totally alien to New Zealand's rugby players.
However, the All Blacks woke up yesterday morning to find they were again competing for column inches with Ricki Herbert, the coach of the All Whites, the country's round-ball side. Herbert became a national hero by guiding New Zealand through an undefeated football World Cup campaign, prising a draw from the four-time champions, Italy, along the way, and all while being paid the lowest salary of any coach in the competition. The nation's sports fans are now waiting on him to decide whether he will continue in his role.
The man at the helm of the All Blacks, Graham Henry, knows he will have to manage significantly more than three draws next year if he is to be afforded anything like the affection Herbert attracts.Henry was lucky to retain his job after his side exited at the quarter-final stage in Cardiff three years back. However, judging by the evidence of the Tri Nations opener at Eden Park, his latest group of players will be tough to beat on home soil when the World Cup begins.
"There was very good preparation and the guys were on edge," Henry said in a televised interview after yesterday's victory. "They wanted to play well and had a good build-up in the previous three games and it was pretty special." South Africa were blown away by a tireless display from New Zealand, led by their back-row forwards Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. The away side did themselves few favours, though. They were clearly enthused and, not for the first time, they allowed that to boil over into foul play.
Bakkies Botha, the fearsome lock-forward, was treading a thin line when he avoided punishment after clearly aiming a headbutt at Jimmy Cowan, the All Black scrum-half, just a minute into the encounter. Botha was cited after the game by Scott Nowland, the SANZAR citing comissioner, the competition's ruling body, and will face a disciplinary hearing on Sunday in Auckland over the incident. Soon after his altercation with Cowan Botha was penalised for a technical infringement. New Zealand helped themselves to 10 points and were pressing hard for more by the time he was permitted back onto the field.
"We have to up our tempo a little bit," said John Smit, the captain of the Springboks. "We didn't really give it much of a contest today but we will be back. "It was very silly. Ill-discipline wins and loses you Tests." Conrad Smith, the All Black centre, touched down the opening try in the corner, profiting from a fine break from the back by Mils Muliaina, the full-back. The lead was stretched to 20-3 by the break when Ma'a Nonu, playing his first Test of 2010, burrowed over in the opposite corner for his 15th Test try.
The Springboks maintained a tenuous foothold in the game thanks to the boot of Morne Steyn, but their victory chances were extinguished when Read powered over from close range on 57 minutes. Tony Woodcock added the exclamation mark just before the final whistle. After an All Black tide of forwards bundled over the line, the prop, Woodcock, emerged with the ball and celebrated a rare score. * Compiled by Paul Radley, with agencies