centre collision

Veteran Kiwis Smith and Nonu set for tussle with Boks' midfield upstarts

Saturday’s World Cup semi-final in Twickenham sees youth pitted against experience in the midfield.

Murray Kinsella reports from London

IT’S JUST ONE of many fascinating match-ups in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and South Africa, but what happens in midfield at Twickenham might prove decisive.

The veterans against the tyros. A combined 193 Test caps against 19. A 21-year-old and a 23-year-old against a 33-year-old and a 34-year-old.

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Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel against Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. The Springboks pair got one over on the Kiwi old-timers the only other time they faced each other, a 27-20 win for New Zealand in Johannesburg back in July.

Smith and Nonu have been warned.

“They played particularly well the last time we played them, they probably had the wood on Ma’a and myself,” said Smith at New Zealand’s base in Weybridge yesterday.

“We know how dangerous they can be and they’ve carried that form into the World Cup.”

Kriel was a breakout star in this year’s Rugby Championship, having excelled at fullback for the Bulls in Super Rugby. With Jean de Villiers missing through injury, Heyneke Meyer shifted the powerful youngster to 13 and got hugely impressive results.

In the 12 shirt, de Allende benefited from the absence of previous incumbent Jan Serfontein to build on his strong Super Rugby form with the Stormers. Suddenly, the Boks had a brand-new centre pairing that was capable of ripping the Kiwis apart.

De Villiers recovered for the start of the World Cup campaign, however, and de Allende was the man to miss out. Kriel started alongside de Villiers in the famous defeat to Japan, but Kriel was the fall guy after missing a tackle for the winning Japanese try.

In stepped de Allende beside de Villiers for the Samoa clash, but the ex-Munster midfielder broke his jaw in that game, ending a World Cup he had worked so hard to be involved in at all.

Kriel Kriel cut Nonu and Smith in the Rugby Championship.

Again, injury has provided Kriel and de Allende with the opportunity to link up and the result has been positive for the Boks a second time around.

“They’ve been very impressive so far,” said the Pau-bound Smith. “Individually they’re great players and they’ve formed a great partnership. I was gutted for Jean obviously, someone I imagine I’ve played against more than anyone else.

“It was a sad way to end with an injury like that, but I’m sure he’s still an influence and helping the two guys that are there now.”

Smith points out that Kriel and de Allende are two of South Africa’s “major strike weapons” from set-piece with their battering ball-carrying and says himself and Nonu have looked closely at that aspect in their analysis.

The biggest moment of Kriel’s time with the Boks so far, individually speaking, was bursting in between Nonu and Smith for a brilliant try in that fixture at Ellis Park.

“Obviously it’s something that I really enjoyed and it’s one of the highlights of my career so far,” said the South African centre in his team’s hotel in Guildford yesterday morning. “Hopefully it can replay this week in the semi-final!”

Still just 21, Kriel is fresh-faced and a little tense in front of the media, a contrast to the laidback communication of Smith later in the day. Kriel admits he still has “to pinch myself” when he realises he’s involved in a World Cup semi-final.

Having come through an intense midfield battle against Jamie Roberts and Tyler Morgan last weekend in the Boks’ quarter-final win over Wales, Kriel is aware that things get even more serious on Saturday.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Quarter Final - South Africa v Wales - Twickenham Kriel carries against the Welsh last weekend. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

“I think they have played a lot of Test rugby,” said Kriel of Nonu and Smith.

“They’re big, obviously Nonu in at 12 is a big, physical player so he’ll pose a threat there. Conrad Smith and the rest of them are all world-class players, they each bring their own skill sets and so many different things.”

Nonu fizzled with footwork, intelligence and an eye for space against the French in New Zealand’s quarter-final win, while Smith was also strong in his use of possession, always passing and offloading at the ideal time.

“They’re both big, strong guys,” said Kriel. “I think Nonu will pose a different treat and obviously New Zealand play a bit differently to Wales. But I think that Damien is a world-class player and he will step up.

“I think the biggest thing is that we’re really looking forward to the challenge and we just can’t wait for the weekend.”

Saturday will be Nonu and Smith’s 62nd Test match together, a truly remarkable feat.

Will their understanding, experience and ongoing world-class ability win out? Or do Kriel and de Allende have the power, hard lines and energy of youth that will cut the Kiwi pairing apart?

It could be the most intriguing midfield contest of the year.

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