Centre Jean de Villiers continued a remarkable recovery from a career-threatening injury when he was picked by South Africa for the first of five pre-Rugby World Cup matches.
The Springboks play a World XV at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on Saturday in a non-cap game ahead of the Rugby Championship and World Cup.
De Villiers was included among eight replacements and coach Heyneke Meyer told a media briefing that the centre would play.
There were fears that the 34-year-old South Africa skipper would be forced to retire after suffering a knee dislocation and ligament damage during a defeat to Wales in Cardiff last November.
While his Springbok team-mates played in the Super 15 or for European clubs, De Villiers underwent extensive rehabilitation.
And his determination was rewarded when Meyer gave him a chance to play.
“Jean is a massive asset to South African rugby and it is wonderful that we can give him some game time from the bench,” said Meyer.
“His return is testament to his incredible work ethic and profes- sional approach to the game.
“He has put in hours of extra work to get here and is a great example to any player on how to put yourself in the best possible position to recover.”
With De Villiers starting on the bench, the cap- taincy has been given to 38-year-old lock Victor Matfield with scrum- half Ruan Pienaar vice-captain.
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A rusty All Blacks side, battered by bone-crunching tackles, received a pre-World Cup fright when they scrambled to a 25-16 victory over Samoa in their historic one-off Test in Apia.
The steady boot of Dan Carter saved New Zealand as the first match between the rugby-obsessed nations in Samoa produced the closest result of all their six meetings.
The Test was the first of a five-match build-up by the All Blacks before they name a 31-man squad for their World Cup defence starting in England in September.
Close-marking by the powerful Samoans and multiple handling errors by both sides meant the clash never reached the free-flowing heights expected.
The All Blacks were held to 12-3 in the first-half with all the points coming from penalties. The only tries in the match, scored by All Blacks debutant George Moala and rugged Samoan flanker Alafoti Faosiliva, both came in the second half.
— Omnisport News (@OmnisportNews) July 8, 2015
Passions were ignited before kick-off with the All Blacks laying down the challenge with their traditional haka, or native war dance, and Samoa responding with their fearsome siva tau.
But after kick-off the fever rapidly ebbed. New Zealand’s set piece appeared to click effortlessly into place with a scrum too powerful for Samoa and several stolen lineouts.
But attempts to run Samoa off the rock-hard ground in the 30 Celsius heat sank beneath a constant wave of close-marking Samoans.
Attempts to change tack with forward drives and a Carter cross-kick to wing Moala failed to breach the Samoans defence But as Johnny Leota and Alesana Tuilagi led a hard-charging Samoan defence the penalties flowed when the off-side line was breached.
— Samoa Rugby (@SamoaRugby) July 8, 2015
Carter was able to land four penalties while Tusi Pisi replied with one for Samoa in the only scoring before half-time.
The Carter-Moala routine eventually paid off early in the second spell when the right wing scooped up a cross-kick and ran 30 metres to the line.
Faosiliva’s try, 15 minutes from time, was the result of two powerful runs in one move through the flagging All Blacks defence by the Bath loose forward.
Tim Nanai Williams’s conversion pulled Samoa within six points of the All Blacks and in sight of a shock result before Carter kicked his sixth penalty late in the game to put the outcome beyond doubt.
It was a classic David and Goliath scenario and nobody can dispute that the unfancied Highlanders were good value for their 21-14 win over the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby final.
With just three All Blacks in their ranks, the men from New Zealand’s South Island were written off by media before the match but used that as motivation to become only the fifth side to win a Super Rugby final away from home.
In a highly entertaining match that was seen as an All Blacks trial game by many, the Hurricanes were clearly affected by pressure of trying to secure a first Super Rugby title for their fans – having previously lost in the 2006 final.
The loss seemed a particularly unfitting tribute to veteran centre Conrad Smith who, after 12 years with the Hurricanes, is among the best players not to have lifted the southern hemisphere’s greatest prize.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will be pleased that the majority of his players came though the match unscathed but will also have made note of back-up fly-half Beauden Barrett being totally outplayed by opposite number and All Blacks rival Lima Sopoanga.
2023 WORLD CUP SHORTLIST FINALISED
South Africa, France, Ireland and Italy are the confirmed candidates who will bid to host 2023 World Cup.
South Africa represents the most logical option for World Rugby. The Rainbow Nation has a track record of success in hosting major sports tournaments and also enjoys the geographic advantage of being the most easily accessible destination for all likely fans.
France hosted the tournament in 2007 and proved that there is sufficient infrastructure to host rugby’s most prestigious event. Due to the passion that exists for rugby in the country, venues will be sold out and World Rugby will be guaranteed a pretty penny if they go Gallic.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) July 3, 2015
Ireland has never enjoyed the privilege of hosting a World Cup and is this scribe’s favoured destination. In the Aviva Stadium, Thomond Park and Ravenhill there are famous rugby venues galore and imagine the spectacle of a World Cup final at the 90,000 capacity Croke Park.
Italy is a close second choice. Despite playing second-fiddle to football by quite some distance as the country’s preferred sport, rugby has a rich history in northern Italy. The recent Under-20 Rugby World Cup was hosted with aplomb and a tournament on this scale could be just what Italy needs to transform from a respected if underperforming side into a consistent Test-playing force.
MOORE NAMED WALLABIES CAPTAIN FOR 2015
Head coach Michael Cheika has made clear his desire to reinstall the consistency and discipline that has undermined Australian rugby in recent seasons by appointing Stephen Moore as skipper.
The veteran hooker of 92 Tests is renowned for his uncompromising style of play, combined with an ability to galvanise any team he plays for.
— Wallabies (@Wallabies) July 6, 2015
It is no coincidence that the Brumbies looked back to their best in this season’s Super Rugby competition after their fearless leader was reinstalled after a significant injury lay-off.
In Moore’s absence, Michael Hooper did a magnificent job as captain in 2014 and many will be surprised not to see the young flanker retain the role.
However Cheika’s shrewd appointment will allow Hooper to concentrate on his role as a ball-winner, while providing Moore with vital support on the frontline, alongside Adam Ashley-Cooper in the backs.
ENGLAND TO FOCUS ON SKILL, NOT SIZE
England forwards coach Graham Rowntree announced this week that he does not want to see his players become any bigger, instead preferring to focus on improving their skills.
This message comes as a refreshing change in a world of modern rugby, in which it is becoming increasingly commonplace to see flying behemoths have their good work on the gain line undone by sloppy handling skills.
In ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess, the Vunipola brothers and James Haskell the England team have adequate size and power to win a World Cup. But without the ability to offload and convert a two-on-one opportunity in the opposition half, that size counts for nothing.
As ever, the benchmark for achieving the perfect power-to-skill ratio is set by the All Blacks. In Richie McCaw, Kieran Reid and Liam Messam you have players that can not only bench press 120kg, but can also keep up with the backs in a game of tag rugby.
GLOCUESTER KEEN TO CONQUER THE STATES
Rumours surfaced this week that Gloucester are in advanced negotiations to take top-flight Aviva Premiership matches across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.
While this may seems like an idea doomed to failure at first glance, recent indicators suggest that there may actually be quite an appetite developing for the game across the pond.
The inclusion of rugby sevens into the Olympics will no doubt have played a part in Gloucester’s decision to pursue this idea.
Last year, New Zealand romped to victory over the USA in Chicago, roared on by a chorus of 61,500 excited local fans in what will surely become an annual fixture in the U.S. rugby calendar.
The idea of taking matches abroad was championed by forward-thinking English powerhouse Saracens. The Londoners have played matches in Cape Town and Belgium in the name of spreading rugby’s name and reaping the commercial rewards of expansion.
Even if Gloucester do not managed to play a game in the USA, these rumours are positive signs that the archaic powers traditionally governing rugby are slowly becoming aware of the game’s globalisation prospects, with those who fail to embrace the change likely to be left behind.