The All Blacks' road to the 2011 Rugby World Cup begins tonight in Wellington when they face a sub-par South African side. It's a match that the All Blacks will be expected to win, and to win well, but there are plenty of sub-plots to keep our interest.
The side is getting closer to a first-choice All Black team. Clearly Brad Thorn, Kieran Reid and Tony Woodcock will be in the top All Black line-up come RWC time, and it's great that Woodcock will be playing for North Harbour in the next few days. Thorn's expected return next week leaves Ali Williams and Sam Whitelock competing for one position against the Wallabies.
The loose forward mix is interesting. We have no doubt that Adam Thompson will be competent at #8, and in combination with McCaw and Kaino, the All Blacks have a strong loose forward trio tonight capable of providing the impetus for an expansive game. McCaw and Thompson may swap places at times tonight, but neither holds a candle to Reid, who has the potential to develop into one of the greats in the role. We have no qualms about him having another week off to recover from an arduous Super Rugby campaign, not Brad Thorn who is the consummate professional, and will be back fit and ready next week.
The backline has a RWC look to it, with the exception of the wings. Cory Jane will be looking to have a huge game tonight as he tries to salvage something from his personal season from hell. Zac Guilford was the form winger in Super Rugby, but play didn't really run his way last week. The Carter/Nonu/Smith combination has a settled, experienced feel, and we'll be looking for Sonny Bill Williams to make an impact in the second half if Nonu can soften up the defence.
Whether or not the "real" Springboks are in camp at Rustenburg will be irrelevant tonight. This is a test match between rugby's most bitter rivals, and that is the attitude that the All Blacks must take onto the Westpac Stadium pitch tonight. Nothing less will be acceptable. A dominant performance and a comprehensive victory will be the best first step that the All Black's can take toward's rugby's biggest prize.
Cross-posted at The Sports Geek - we'll be blogging there as well from time to time...