NZ bring back Gear for Bok clash
It came across as an under-statement, but those looking for reasons why the All Blacks are equipped to win Saturday’s final Castle Rugby Championship test – even at an intimidating FNB Stadium venue where the Springboks will have massive support – should have found it in the words of Steve Hansen.
And if the All Black coach’s reference to “the experienced spine” of his team wasn’t enough to convince, then a glance through the team he announced for the game at a press conference in Sandton should suffice.
There are two changes to the starting team that won in Argentina last week, but those changes don't make any difference to the tally of international caps in one of the most experienced test teams of all time.
Jake White used to make a lot of the experience that was being accumulated in his team when he was Springbok coach between 2003 and 2007.
He was the Bok coach who first introduced the focus that was placed on number of caps at team announcement press conferences, something that was continued during the era of Peter de Villiers, who drew on the foundation laid for him by White. New Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has been singing from a slightly different hymn sheet.
While not wanting to make excuses, he has repeatedly pointed with some justification to the inexperience in the spine of what is essentially a new Bok team as one of the reasons why they haven’t always been that convincing in his first season.
Going into last year’s World Cup the Boks fielded one of the most experienced international teams of all time, and that was touted as one of the potential advantages they might have over the All Blacks at that event.
But now the boot is firmly on the other foot, with the All Blacks being the team that boasts the experience.
The most capped All Black player is Richie McCaw, with 111, followed by replacement hooker Keven Mealamu, who is hovering two away from the magical three-figure mark, eight ahead of flyhalf Daniel Carter and prop Tony Woodcock.
Add all those caps up and it comes to a tally of 389 caps shared between just four players, and then you have Ma’a Nonu (71) and Andrew Hore (70), with reserve scrumhalf Piri Weepu (64) and centre Conrad Smith (61) being the other All Blacks who have played more than 50 games.
By contrast the current Bok team can claim only three players who have gone beyond the half century mark in caps in Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and Ruan Pienaar.
That disparity, and the fact that this All Black team boasts six of the most capped All Blacks by position – prop Woodcock, hooker Mealamu, flank McCaw, flyhalf Carter, inside centre Nonu and outside centre Smith – might seem irrelevant, but it means a lot when a team has travelled across the world and is about to face a fired-up team like the Springboks in front of 90 000 of their fanatical supporters.
“It is a massive challenge to play at Soccer City and it doesn’t come much bigger than facing South Africa at a venue like that but we have a lot of experience going through the spine of our team,” said Hansen.
“We know that the South Africans will get in behind their players and it is going to be a massive challenge but in the end it’s going to be a game played between the same white lines that all the other games at other venues are, and this team has experience of winning all over the world.
"If you go in with the right attitude it doesn’t matter where the game is being played.
“What we need to do is just do something early in the game that will keep the fans quiet. We did it in Argentina last week, where we also played in front of a massive home crowd.
"Playing top opponents at an away venue is always a big challenge, but speaking for myself here, big challenges are what you enjoy most when you are involved in top-level sport.”
The two changes to the starting team for Saturday see the two-metre tall Brodie Retallick come into the second row for Luke Romano, who drops to the bench position occupied by Retallick last week, and Hosea comes in on the wing for Julian Savea in what could be a move designed to combat the South African tactical kicking game at the Highveld venue.
“Luke Romano was pretty beat-up after last week’s game in Argentina and has a cut on his face. He couldn’t participate fully in training this week so we thought it would be wiser to introduce him later in the game and let Brodie get a start,” said Hansen.
Other changes to the bench see prop Ben Franks, loose-forward Adam Thomson and outside back Tamati Ellison come into the match-day squad in place of Charlie Faumuina, Sam Cane and Ben Smith respectively.
Hansen said the selection of Thomson ahead of Cane was based on experience and Thomson’s status as an extra lineout option.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Cory Jane, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma'a Nonu, 11-Hosea Gear, 10-Dan Carter, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Ben Franks, 18-Luke Romano, 19-Adam Thomson, 20-Piri Weepu, 21-Aaron Cruden, 22-Tamati Ellison