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Rugby | Springboks

Boks acknowledged as greatest challenge



John Smit's men have been receiving rave reviews in the New Zealand media, from Sean Fitzpatrick's admission that the current Springboks scare him to Conrad Smith's acknowledgement that they are the greatest challenge for the All Blacks.

Fitzpatrick presided over an awesome All Blacks side that all but killed off the special nature of matches against the Springboks, such was their dominance, including three successive wins in South Africa in 1996.

The former hooker, in his column for the New Zealand Herald, said depth in experience was the current Springboks' most telling strength and he said the fact so many of their senior players were hungry for back-to-back World Cup titles, made them especially dangerous.

Fitzpatrick's views have certainly filtered down to the current All Blacks and 28-year-old outside centre Smith said his generation could now see what the old rivalry was all about.

"I started feeling that last year. I was a kid growing up through the apartheid era and I never watched the Springboks. For me growing up, it was always Australia that was the biggest challenge when I dreamed of playing for the All Blacks.

"But now I think, along with a lot of other people from my era, we're realising the special nature of playing the Springboks. I think it's great," Smith told website stuff.co.nz.

The Wellington Hurricanes midfielder said the Springboks weren't shy when it came to imposing their direct, physical approach on the opposition.

"I don't think their formula's changed for the 20-odd years I've been seeing and hearing about the game. They know what they do well, that's why they've been playing so well, and I think they've really gone back to that.

"They're brilliant at the simple things of the game and they've focused on that the past few years, the way they've been able to put pressure on teams."

Smith also acknowledged the special relationship between South Africa and New Zealand that ensures they will almost always yell for the All Blacks when they play against anyone else.

"The respect South Africans give the All Blacks is pretty real and pretty humbling at times, especially with the success they've had over us last year. But that's why it's so good - we respect each other and that carries a real edge about wanting to beat each other too."

Smith is a top-class centre with rare gifts of vision, handling and organisational skills, and a titanic midfield battle awaits in the opening Tri-Nations test in Auckland on Saturday.

"It's going to be a heck of a contest. They're all hard-running and they've added in the last year or so a bit of inventiveness to their game. It's been good for their attack and hard for us to defend. It will be a good challenge."

While Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie last year established themselves as the foremost centre pairing in world rugby, it has been a tremendous coup for the Springboks to unearth someone as talented as Juan de Jongh, while Wynand Olivier and Butch James also provide tremendous options.

Graham Henry and his fellow selectors have been searching the hills and vales of New Zealand for similar depth and there is no clearer indication of their problems than Ma'a Nonu's selection to partner Smith.

Nonu has played just 70 minutes of club rugby since injuring his knee in mid-May but has been rushed back into action against the world champions.

"I know when you've had an injury layoff there's a bit of anxiety when you come back, a bit of self-doubt creeps in. But Ma'a's got more than enough experience, which will help him in the end," Smith said.

No doubt the talented Richard Kahui will see some action off the bench.

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