The pressure is firmly on the Blacks, especially given all the hype surrounding their one-sided slaughter of the Lions, and then the away loss to South Africa in Cape Town, three weeks ago. All Blacks coach Graham Henry said post-Capetown that his players had just been "a little ring rusty after a month-long layoff, but will be ready for Dunedin." Let's hope Henry can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
The Springboks, on the other hand, will arrive at Dunedin's "House of Pain" believing that they have finally overcome the tag of perennial losers on the road. Last weekend in Perth, they erased a six-year losing streak by defeating an under-strength, but brave Australian outfit. Jake White's side were a little fortunate to come out on top against the Wallabies, and can thank the flying feet of winger Bryan Habana for their win.
Twice in a closely fought match, the flying Springbok winger left the Australian defence gasping for breath with a brace of breakaway tries. Both of Habana's pitch-length tries were more the result of Australian turnovers than self-manufacture. In fact, when one takes into account the intercept try scored by the 'Boks against the All Blacks in Cape Town, it seems White's charges are still finding it hard to galvanize any of their own scores from their largely defence-orientated game plan.
White will hardly care. Just so long as his defensive policy brings the 'Boks their first back-to-back Tri-Nations titles, and also bragging rights as the world's best rugby team.
Home to a largely student population, Dunedin is a graveyard for touring rugby teams, especially the Springboks, who have never won a single game in the deep south of New Zealand. Last week in Perth, the weather was warm, the South African supporters outnumbered the locals, and for the victors, it was not all that different from being back home in South Africa. Saturday in Dunedin will see a completely different atmosphere. The weather will be traditionally cold, the supporters fanatical, and the All Blacks desperate to perform.
Admittedly, the All Blacks must also do it without ace out-half Dan Carter, and also without a tough international blowout in the last fortnight. Coach Henry proved that he had learnt from his earlier mistakes however, and forced his top line players to at least play provincial rugby last weekend.
The big talking point in New Zealand rugby is the continued inclusion of Joe Rokocoko at the expense of the fit-again Sivivatu Sitiveni, who was such a sensational against the Lions. Such is the depth of All Black wingers that players of calibre of Doug Howlett, Sivivatu, Rico Gear and Rokocoko are all vying for just two Test spots. How many other countries would like such choice?
Rokocoko, who had a luke warm Super 12 Series this year and was consequently dropped for the Lions Series, has responded with two lively performances in this summer's Tri Nations. He has rightly held onto his spot. The other main point of debate is the inclusion of Canterbury's Leon McDonald at number 10 ahead of young rookie Luke McAlister. Assistant coach Wayne Smith has always been a fan of MacDonald and talk around New Zealand is that McDonald is being groomed as the back up out-half to Carter for the next World Cup.
Smith has also been slinging a bit of mud at Jake White's charges, claiming that they are guilty of deliberately taking out the All Black backs, off the ball, at key times during the game. Whatever the case, the All Blacks will have to get pass the brilliant Springbok push defence to prevail, and the pressure is firmly on the All Blacks to perform, especially after their first-up loss in South Africa.
The 'Boks have surprised to date, but New Zealand's superior ability to manufacture scores should see them win this weekend's clash. Henry must ensure discipline and urge his young team to be patient and build scores from good field positions. In Cape Town, the All Blacks became frustrated when they were in the score zone. With their aggresive defence, South Africa will look to unsettle the home side, so expect McDonald to be pressurized early on. I'm going for an All Blacks' win.