JOHANNESBURG // Scrum-half Francois Hougaard and lock Flip van der Merwe will make their first starts in a much-changed South Africa side for the Tri Nations rugby test against New Zealand in Soweto on Saturday. The All Blacks, who need just a point from their last two games to claim their 10th Tri Nations title, brought in scrum-half Jimmy Cowan and prop Ben Franks - who replaces younger brother Owen - in the only changes to their starting line-up on yesterday.
Peter De Villiers, the South Africa coach, made seven player changes and one positional switch to the struggling Springboks after the 30-13 defeat to Australia on July 24 - the third successive loss for the defending Tri Nations champions. Wing JP Pietersen, centres Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh, flanker Juan Smith and prop Jannie du Plessis were also recalled by De Villiers. Gio Aplon moves from wing to full-back in place of the injured Zane Kirchner and experienced flanker Smith, a World Cup winner in 2007, plays his first test since September 2009.
Doubt over Danie Rossouw's injured hip opened a slot for Van der Merwe, while Hougaard, twice a replacement, will earn his first start for South Africa in the No 9 position after making his name as a wing for provincial team the Bulls. "Francois is a guy who excites me," De Villiers said of the 22-year-old Hougaard. "He has got a very strong head. He's the kind of guy you can go to war with. "I am, at this moment, very pleased with the focus of the guys. We are focusing on this game only and I hope we can turn the tables," De Villiers said.
Lock and vice-captain Victor Matfield added: "We know we weren't as good as we should have been overseas. We were 10 to 15 per cent off our game and we need to fix everything. We can get a lot of things right and get people to believe in this team again." Cowan is back at No 9 for the unbeaten All Blacks in place of Piri Weepu after recovering from a rib injury, and Franks returns at tight-head prop for his third test start. Weepu drops down to the bench.
Henry said his team expected to face a "very different" Springboks side from the one that lost twice in New Zealand in the opening rounds. "They will be hugely motivated to turn around those results and we are expecting a hugely physical encounter," Henry said. As expected, South Africa captain John Smit was picked at hooker, where he will win his 100th Test cap in the historic match at FNB Stadium, formerly Soccer City - the first time the Springboks will play in the famous township.
Smit will become the 15th player, and second South African after Percy Montgomery, to play 100 Tests. The in-form All Blacks, who have won four from four in this year's Tri Nations, including the back-to-back wins over the Boks, are on the verge of a 10th title in the 15 years of the southern hemisphere tournament. They will likely face the biggest crowd at a rugby match in South Africa since 1955, with nearly 90,000 people expected at the venue that hosted the football World Cup final last month.
"Playing the Springboks in Soweto in front of 90,000-plus fans - it doesn't get much bigger than this," Henry said. On a historic day in Soweto, fly-half Daniel Carter could become New Zealand's highest point-scorer against South Africa. He has 207 points against the Boks, two behind predecessor Andrew Mehrtens. * Associated Press