By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, Sept 12 (Reuters) - The double-edged sword of having to prepare for a World Cup defence and still win every game in between has never been more evident for New Zealand coach Steve Hansen than this weekend when his side face South Africa.
Hansen highlighted his 2015 World Cup plans on Thursday by giving young hooker Dane Coles his third start in his ninth test for Saturday's Rugby Championship match (kickoff 0735 GMT) at Eden Park in Auckland.
But he resisted continuing the development of Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua for the hotly anticipated encounter, opting instead to restore first-choice prop Owen Franks and flanker Liam Messam after they returned from injuries.
Franks, still only 25, will earn his 50th test cap on Saturday and is considered one of the best tighthead props in the world, while blindside Messam's inclusion at the expense of Luatua was for his experience and physicality around the ruck.
The decision to reinstall the pair was no doubt to combat the fierce confrontation Hansen expects from the Springboks pack, who battered Australia into submission in their 38-12 victory last week.
The win in Brisbane gave them a nine-match winning streak and they arrived in New Zealand confident they could be the first Springboks team to beat the All Blacks at home since John Smit's side recorded a 32-29 victory in Hamilton in 2009.
"The All Blacks are a great side," Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer told reporters this week. "There are no weaknesses there.
"You have to be at your very best in all facets of the game because they have a brilliant kicking game, they have a brilliant running game.
"They defend well. They scrum well and have a good lineout. That is why they're the world champions."
The Springboks, so long criticised for their one-dimensional approach to the game, are developing a side that is starting to find the balance between a bludgeoning forward pack and backline willing, and able, to use the ball at pace and with width.
"We know physically they're an awesome side, but with some of the tries they have been scoring they've been playing quite an open style," flyhalf Daniel Carter told Fairfax Media earlier this week.
"They're a bit more of an all-round package - whereas in previous years they have been quite one-dimensional."
The Springboks have scored 14 tries in their three games in the southern hemisphere championship so far, including nine in a 73-13 rout of Argentina in the first round and four against the Wallabies last week.
Those two bonus point victories have given the Springboks a one-point lead over the All Blacks in the standings and the winners of the Eden Park clash will seize the initiative in the fight for the title.
Such is the anticipation ahead of the match that even Carter joined the pundits in describing it as the most important game in New Zealand since the 2011 World Cup final.
"This is going to be the biggest match of our year so far, and even potentially one of the biggest since the World Cup because of the form they're in," Carter said.
"At home on Eden Park against an in-form Boks side - it's an occasion you want to be part of."
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma'a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Daniel Carter, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Sam Cane, 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Dane Coles, 1-Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Matt Todd, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers (captain), 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Flip van der Merwe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Gurthro Steenkamp, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Juandre Kruger, 20-Siya Kolisi, 21-Jano Vermaak, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein.
Referee: Romain Poite (France) (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)