ABs pledge physical battle

Steve Hansen (Gallo)
Steve Hansen (Gallo)

Wellington - The All Blacks' strength in depth faces a critical examination when they play South Africa on Saturday in a showdown between the world's top two sides a year out from the Rugby World Cup.

"You're going to get physicality and it's going to be tough and you wouldn't want it any other way," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said of the fourth-round Rugby Championship encounter in Wellington.

"It's not about talking it up, neither side is like that. Both teams just get on with the job and the opportunity to have a one-two clash is always exciting."

Both rugby heavyweights have expressed a desire for an open game, although injuries have forced the All Blacks to dig deep with their forward selections.

Their sixth-ranked lock Jeremy Thrush gets a start along with loose forward Steven Luatua, who was deemed not fit enough to be part of the side just three months ago.

While the All Blacks have been forced to shore up their pack, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has enough confidence in his forwards to retain the same eight who started in last week's 24-23 loss to Australia.

But in the backs it is a different story with Meyer taking the bold move of replacing proven match-winner Morne Steyn with 20-year-old Handre Pollard at flyhalf.

"The forwards are settled but we're struggling to get continuity in the backs," he said of appointing Pollard, who has played just three Tests, as the playmaker against the All Blacks.

"I don't think you're going to beat the All Blacks, especially away from home, if you just do the conventional.

"Before the World Cup I have to expose him. He could be a big force. He's big and strong, a brilliant defender with a good kicking game and he's an unbelievable attacking player."

It is a selection that Hansen acknowledged could strengthen the Springboks attack with Pollard's direct approach putting pressure on the defensive abilities of All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who returns after recovering from a chest muscle injury.

Hansen also dismissed talk of Pollard's lack of Test experience, recalling his time as Wales coach in 2003 when Dan Carter made his Test debut and "smashed us", scoring 20 points in the All Blacks' 55-3 victory.

Hansen saw enough in Thrush, who replaced the injured Sam Whitelock in the first half of the 28-9 win against Argentina, to retain him in the middle row, before deciding to recall Luatua to replace Liam Messam.

He debated whether to move Richie McCaw to the blindside and start Sam Cane as openside flank before opting in favour of the 1.94m Luatua's superior aerial skills.

"He learnt the hard way, but he's learnt a valuable lesson and hopefully he can carry that with him for the rest of his career," he said of Luatua's return to fitness.

"He's certainly worked hard and now we expect him to play that way."

The All Blacks and Springboks often produce brutal clashes in their constant battle for supremacy in world rugby and although New Zealand have come out on top for the past three years Hansen conceded the two Tests last year could have gone the other way.

"The South Africans only lost two games last year, so if we're being honest they could have been two games we lost," he said.

Teams:

New Zealand:

15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett.

Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Cory Jane

South Africa:

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Substitutes: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Damian de Allende

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