With the top-ranked rugby side chasing revenge against the world champions the stage is set for the “ultimate Test” when the All Blacks and Springboks open the Tri-Nations series.
The All Blacks are still fuming after losing all three Tests against their arch rivals last year when they relinquished the Tri-Nations crown they had held for the four previous years.
The Test also carries intriguing Eden Park subplots with the All Blacks unbeaten in their past 20 Tests at the stadium, where South Africa have not won since 1937 and which will be the venue for next year’s World Cup final.
“The All Blacks Test has always been the ultimate Test,” Springboks captain John Smit said as he contemplated all that was at stake.
“It’s that Test match you look forward to and the butterflies are flapping around.”
The All Blacks can ill afford a fourth consecutive loss to South Africa as they pit the run-at-all-costs style of play they have pinned their faith in against the muscle power and kicking combination that has served the Springboks well.
Although the All Blacks have tried to sidestep talk of “revenge”, captain Richie McCaw admitted at their final training run on Friday of a need to set the record straight.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a little bit in there,” McCaw conceded.
“For those of us who were there last year it was a bit frustrating that we didn’t perform the way we would like, so we want to do that this week.”
He said the All Blacks were happy with the way they played on their end of year tour last year and in their first three Tests this year but against the Springboks “with the top two teams in the world playing we will see where we are at.”
There are four changes to the All Blacks’ side which started their most recent Test against Wales with Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith returning from injury along with the recalled Joe Rokocoko and Owen Franks.
Smit played down concerns about the Eden Park hoodoo, pointing to how his world champion side had notched up their first ever wins against the All Blacks in Dunedin and Hamilton in the past two years.
He said frequent trips to New Zealand by South African sides in the Super 14 competition had helped them break through historical barriers.
“Any kind of away win helps. It creates a belief inside you that you can perhaps do it again.”
Looming in the background is the psychological advantage to the winner with the World Cup just over a year away.
Smit said the South Africans realised it would be harder to defend the Cup than it was to win it and to beat the All Blacks now at Eden Park would be a step in the right direction.
“Any win is important and it’s going to be a long journey before we are able to pack our bags and get here (for the World Cup) before the squad is chosen and before the task is delivered,” Smit said.
“So there’s a lot of work to be done and if you say to me ‘does one win in Auckland in 2010 make that possible?’, no, it doesn’t make it possible but it does help the journey.”
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Tom Donnelly, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock, Liam Messam, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Richard Kahui.
South Africa: Zane Kirchner, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Ricky Januarie; Pierre Spies, Francois Louw, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Jannie du Plessis, John Smit (captain), Gurthro Steenkamp.
Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, BJ Botha, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Ruan Pienaar, Butch James, Gio Aplon.