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Plenty To Prove For Scratchy All Blacks

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Fuseworks Media
Plenty To Prove For Scratchy All Blacks

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Hamilton, Sept 11 NZPA - The All Blacks' Tri-Nations home record is a comfort blanket to cling to as they seek to prevent another raid on their rugby trophy cabinet and to ignite an international campaign that has spluttered for oxygen.

Tomorrow's test against South Africa marks the halfway point of a 15-game season and is arguably their most important fixture of 2009.

Victory may yet prevent the Tri-Nations Trophy from going the same way as the Dave Gallaher Cup they lost to France and the Freedom Cup that the Springboks have already snaffled.

But more importantly, a quality win can banish the nagging thought that All Blacks standards are on the wane and that the Springboks are in a different league.

The double defeat in South Africa and season-opening stumble against France were not pretty but coach Graham Henry's men have also flattered to deceive when winning.

They hardly dominated France in the second test, were abject for much of the Italian test while they came from behind both times to sneak tight wins over Australia.

If first five-eighth Daniel Carter happened to miss his matchwinning penalty in Sydney last month, the three subsequent weeks could have been a hellish period for Henry and captain Richie McCaw.

Just 10 tries in seven tests suggests a valuable four-try bonus point at Waikato Stadium is unlikely and the team have admitted it is down on their priority list.

McCaw said there was a yearning to finally put a quality performance on the park.

"It's been like that for a while. The desire's right, we just haven't got the execution right," McCaw said.

The All Blacks have learned plenty from the Wallabies' 21-6 upset of the Springboks in Brisbane last weekend, a result built on banishing mistakes and flooding the breakdown.

Australia forced South Africa to kick long from their own half -- rather than launch high, attacking bombs -- and made a phenomenal 95 percent of their tackles, compared to 64 percent the week before in Perth.

McCaw's men must back their defence rather than gift easy breakdown penalties to Springboks goalkicking machine Morne Steyn.

"We've got to match them physically and that starts at set piece," McCaw said.

"Being able to win our ball and play at the right end of the field, then you can build some pressure.

"We were under pressure the whole time for those two tests (in South Africa)."

McCaw, set to play his 75th test, reckoned the Wallabies did them no favours in Brisbane as the Springboks would review their style and be mentally wired for success.

"They weren't as up for the game. I'm sure they'll have that sorted for what will be their last game for a while."

The All Blacks have been virtually unbeatable in home Tri-Nations tests this decade, with the Springboks' historic win at Dunedin last year an exception.

Players like McCaw (12 tests) and wing Joe Rokocoko (10) have never lost a home match in the tournament while fullback Mils Muliaina (14 from 15) leads a large group with just one loss on their resume.

However, this Springboks side present the sort of consistent challenge not mounted since Australia in the years after they also won a World Cup, in 1999.

Muliaina has encountered few better sides and believed the visitors would adhere to a strict gameplan tomorrow.

"It would be fair to say that if we were in their shoes, you'd want to come over here and play as defensively as you want and try to pick up a bonus point to wrap up the series," he said.

"Hopefully we can counter it."

Springboks captain John Smit disagreed, saying a win was the priority. He suspected that would be the All Blacks' attitude as well.

"A lot has been written about them having to throw the ball around and chasing the five-pointer but I don't think that's what we'll get," Smit said.

"It's not easy at this level, especially with the two best teams in the world playing each other, and I'm pretty sure they will be playing a clever game to make sure the win comes first and then look to see what's out there."

Victory would see the All Blacks reclaim the world No 1 ranking they lost in South Africa.

They sit just 0.04 points behind the Springboks, who would have dropped to second had Matt Giteau converted Australia's final try at Brisbane.

 

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