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Rugby Union: New Zealand the confident choice.

NEW ZEALAND, tagged as underdogs in some quarters but 4-9 in Britain for the Tri-Nations Test clash with South Africa at boggy Athletic Park in Wellington tomorrow, can stick two fingers up at the doubters and make light of a five-point handicap.

The All Blacks' defeat against Australia in their Tri-Nations opener two weeks ago means this is a match the home side must win if they are to harbour any hopes of retaining the trophy.

Christian Cullen, the All Blacks full back, yesterday voiced concerns over the state of the pitch (heavy going with long grass), which has been swamped by the recent wet weather. He said: "It's hard to run on - it cuts through and you get bogged in."

But Nick Mallett, the Springboks' coach, said it had improved since April. "It has a lot of grass on it and it's in a better condition than Newlands," he countered, referring to his side's victory over England in Cape Town three weeks ago.

This will be the 50th time the sides have met. The Springboks have never beaten the All Blacks in a Tri-Nations match in New Zealand, but their last Test victory there came at this venue in 1981.

Hopes are high in the Springbok camp after their scrappy 14-13 win against Australia in Perth last weekend, and Gary Teichmann, the visitors' captain, said: "We're going into this game with more confidence."

But Mallett warned: "The only good thing we took out of that game was that we won it. Only five of our guys had an average performance - ten were below par. If we play like that against New Zealand, we'll lose by 20 points."

Taine Randell, captain of the All Black, Tri-Nations champions for the past two years, said: "We're in for a tough match, but we are happy being tagged as the underdogs."

While South Africa are unchanged from the win over Australia, Hart will choose between midfield backs Joeli Vidiri and Scott McLeod tomorrow. Jonah Lomu returns after missing the defeat against Australia, but fly half Andrew Mehrtens is replaced by Carlos Spencer.

The All Blacks can win by 11-15 points (6-1), with Jeff Wilson, the Kiwi winger, the tip at 8-1 to touch down first.

NZ v SAfr recent form (venue, winner, score): 1997: Auckland NZ 55-35; Johannesburg NZ 35-32; 1996: Johannesburg SAfr 32-22, Pretoria NZ 33-26, Durban NZ 23-19, Cape Town NZ 29-18, Christchurch NZ 15-11; 1995: Johannesburg SAfr 15-12; 1994: Auckland Draw 18-18, Wellington NZ 13-9, Dunedin NZ 22-14; 1992: Johannesburg NZ 27-24; 1981: Auckland NZ 25-22, Wellington SAfr 24-12, Christchurch NZ 14-9
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Humphries, Adrian
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 24, 1998
Words:432
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