All Blacks runaway train better late than never
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The All Blacks will call on their recent ability to finish Test rugby matches like a runaway locomotive when they face South Africa on Saturday.
Compelling statistics show New Zealand have become the best closers in the world game, with their record against the Springboks especially impressive.
The two great rivals have barely been separated at halftime in their last five Tests but the All Blacks have then powered away in four of them – with the one exception being their narrow loss at Dunedin last year.
More pointedly, the All Blacks have scored 10 tries in those Tests, with nine coming in the second half and seven of them in the final 14 minutes.
All Blacks backline coach Wayne Smith points to the importance his players place on having a quality reserves bench.
“If you want intensity in a Test match for 80 minutes, you’ve got to have 22 players able to contribute,” he said.
“You can’t have 16, 17 or 18 because at some point you’re going to lose intensity.”
Last year’s season-ending tour, starting with the final Bledisloe Cup Test in Hong Kong, was remarkable for the defensive wall New Zealand would erect after 40 minutes.
They never conceded a try after halftime in any of the six matches and won the second half of them by a combined scored of 87-3.
The All Blacks will on Saturday seek to emulate last year’s 19-0 win in Cape Town, which catapulted them towards another Tri-Nations crown.
Primed by a hard-fought series defeat of the British and Irish Lions, the Springboks lie in wait for a New Zealand side who have operated at several cylinders below their best this season.
There was improvement on their June efforts in last Saturday’s defeat of Australia, but the Wallabies were surprisingly poor.
“Professional rugby at the top level is hugely physical and probably the people who have set that standard are the Springboks,” All Blacks coach Graham Henry said.
“We respect that and try to match them in that part of the game. If you don’t match them, then you get second.
“We just have to come up to that challenge really.”
Representing South African muscle in its purest form is lock Bakkies Botha, who missed Cape Town last year but has returned from suspension.
Five-eighth Stephen Donald will continue to try and shrug off the doubts that continue over his Test readiness, particularly with the challenge of playing at altitude.
Chiefs team-mate Brendon Leonard is installed at halfback, while Joe Rokocoko comes onto the wing.
Combined with the hard surface at Vodacom Park, that suggests a more expansive All Blacks style.
One person quite sure the All Blacks will use width is Springboks great Victor Matfield, the veteran lock keen to see the Test turn into a lineout-fest.
“It’s an area we see as a strength of ours and we want to attack them,” Matfield said.
“If we can force them into lineouts it will be advantageous for us. But (Isaac) Ross and (Brad) Thorn did well against Bakkies Botha and I in the Super 14.
“It’ll be nice and dry for them, so I’m sure they will try keep the ball in hand. They have great runners at the back who love to play from broken field. They don’t need many phases to break you down.”
The All Blacks are unbeaten in three Bloemfontein Tests, which include a draw and a win over Japan at the 1995 World Cup.© AAP 2013
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