Graham Henry says that the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium will be a proving ground for the inexperienced and fringe players hoping to force their way into the All Blacks’ World Cup squad.
The Springboks will be determined to snap a four-game losing streak when they host the All Blacks this Saturday. They will be strong favourites considering they’re playing at home and have their best players available. The fact that Henry has selected an All Blacks side comprising fringe players and as many as five players returning from injury should also help the Boks’ cause.
The All Blacks coach still harbours hopes of extending that winning streak, even though senior men like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are currently not with the squad. Henry is also hoping that the intensity and physicality of the Boks brings out the best in this All Blacks side, and prepares some of them for a tough World Cup.
He rubbished suggestions that the Boks will be underdogs this Saturday, ‘They’re the World Champions aren’t they?’ or that the All Blacks have come to South Africa with a complacent attitude. There are players in the visiting squad that have plenty to prove, and Henry intimated that the challenge doesn’t get any tougher than a Test against the Boks.
‘We wanted to put them in a situation where they had to play a [full-strength] Bok side,’ Henry said. ‘You can talk and talk about playing against the Boks, but until you go out there and actually experience it, you don’t know what it’s like. We want to see how certain players respond to that pressure, and whether they can then make good decisions.
‘There are quite a few players that haven’t played too many Tests. Our flyhalf [Colin Slade] and fullback [Israel Dagg] are two such players. This experience will be good for them, and how they handle the pressure will be key.’
Henry reiterated that it had always been the plan to use this Tri-Nations Test as an opportunity for those returning from injury and a few players on the fringe.
‘We had thoughts before the Fiji game about how we would manage the squad. We were always going to give certain players opportunities because it was crucial that they got experience before the World Cup. Guys like Slade and Piri Weepu needed the opportunities. There were also a few players returning from injury that deserved the chance to put their ability in front of the selectors.’
Peter de Villiers left 23 top players in South Africa when the Boks toured Australasia, and the team was duly thumped by the All Blacks. Henry has only left eight players in New Zealand, but it’s concerning to see how the rivalry between the Boks and All Blacks has been devalued by the selection of weakened teams.
The All Blacks coach doesn’t appear to take such criticism seriously, and maintains that the visitors have a dual objective for Saturday’s game.
‘You have to do what’s best for a rugby team. We have come here to play good football but we are also planning towards the World Cup,’ he said.
‘It’s the same with the Boks. They went a lot better last week and I’m sure they will be looking to improve. It will also be important that they pick up a win before the World Cup. They will want to go to that tournament with momentum.’
By Jon Cardinelli, in Port Elizabeth