All Blacks primed for Springboks challenge
June 28, 2010
South Africa's Bryan Habana and New Zealand Sitiveni Sivivatu compete for a high ball, New Zealand v South Africa, Tri-Nations, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, New Zealand, September 12, 2009
South Africa's Bryan Habana and New Zealand's Sitiveni Sivivatu compete for a high ball during their decisive clash in Hamilton last year © Getty Images

The high ball and lineout have shifted up the agenda as an All Blacks squad based around versatility eyeball two crucial fixtures against the Springboks next month.

The annual transition from the June Tests to the Tri-Nations will be smoothed by a camp in Auckland later this week which will be "South African oriented", according to New Zealand coach Graham Henry, desperate to erase the memory of last year's three defeats to the men in green. South Africa completed their preparations for Tests in Auckland on July 10 and Wellington on July 17 by crushing Italy 55-11 in Buffalo City, not long after the All Blacks struggled for cohesion in a 29-10 defeat of Wales here on Saturday night.

The Springboks' dominant lineout and New Zealand's inability to handle the high ball were features of last season's "blackwash" but there is confidence those areas have been addressed well.

Forwards coach Steve Hansen, who must again try to outwit world class lock Victor Matfield, reckoned the lineout had improved several notches on this stage last year. "We now step up into the big boys' league and I think we can go in there with some confidence, as long as we keep it smart and keep it simple and people do their job," Hansen said.

Winger Cory Jane, a standout figure in New Zealand's hammering of Ireland and twin defeats of Wales, expected another aerial bombardment even though this season's rule interpretations had prompted less kicking in general play. "I presume they'll keep kicking, we just have to keep working on our counter-attack," Jane told NZPA. "We've shown that if everyone's working for each other, we can punish some teams. If we keep working hard, we can turn those kicks into tries for us or put them under pressure."

The All Blacks' raids from deep on Saturday were less penetrative than the first two June Tests. "We were a bit eager, we got a bit flat. Some of the boys would run a bit too hard at holes when there were opportunities wider," Jane said. "So we've just got to be a bit smarter... and have a bit of fun with the counter attack, because that's what it's all about."

Henry made an unexpected manouevre yesterday by dropping four noted players when unveiling his Tri-Nations squad. Winger Zac Guildford made way for second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu, loose forward Adam Thomson for Liam Messam, prop Neemia Tialata for John Afoa and hooker Aled de Malmanche for Corey Flynn. Also included are two players used on "standby" through June - lock Sam Whitelock and outside back Rene Ranger - but there is no room for dangerous New Zealand Maori backs Hosea Gear and Luke McAlister.

The squad is notable for its versatility, most evident in the front row, where Afoa's development as a third hooking option will continue. "We're looking at John Afoa as a player who can play in all three front row positions," Hansen said. "He's got a lot of work to do there. He's not an experienced No 2 but he can play both sides of the scrum and if he can play all positions in the front row it's going to be a huge bonus for us going forward."

The loose forwards have flexible feel, with Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito and Messam all employable at No.8 or the blindside flank while first-choice No Kieran Read is captain Richie McCaw's openside cover. Blues dynamo Ranger is an option at both centre and wing, with Henry describing him as "an interesting prospect".

"Bringing him on (on Saturday) he touched the ball twice and made two linebreaks and made six tackles and they were pretty good ones."

Perhaps Henry's biggest eye-opener was news he had sounded out young first five-eighth Aaron Cruden as a third halfback candidate. The idea was hatched when Cruden revealed he had worn No.9 for a year at school. "I said 'well that's good enough'. He said ' like your thinking Ted', he wasn't that averse to the idea. If we're going to consider that we have to talk to his province (Manawatu) and see that he might get a run there occasionally at halfback. That's just left field stuff."


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