Rugby Championship: Time to Bok up
In the last two matches, the Springboks’ attack hasn’t been anything to write home about. But they’ll have a chance to show the world what they can do on the defence side when they take on Australia this weekend. Luckily for South Africa, the pressure is on the Aussies – they’ve had to face some injuries and other challenges, and the pressure is on for them to win at home. By KEN BORLAND.
The Springboks opened their Rugby Championship campaign with two lacklustre attacking showings, but now their defensive prowess will be under the spotlight when they take on Australia in Perth on Saturday.
Even though the Wallabies failed to open their account in their last outing, losing 22-0 to New Zealand, they are a side known for their brilliant backline play and they have regularly carved up the Springboks en route to a record-equalling four successive wins over the South Africans.
This is one game where the Springboks’ preoccupation with the gain-line battle could be a good thing.
The Wallabies rely on quick, front-foot ball and the disorganised defences that come with it but, as the All Blacks showed, the skills of their backs are nullified when they’re going backwards.
The Springboks will start the undermining of the Australian platform in the set-pieces.
While both sides have in-form scrums, with Australia boasting one of the best looseheads in world rugby in Benn Robinson as well as the experienced Ben Alexander at tighthead, a strong Springbok lineout, boosted by the presence of Duane Vermeulen at the back, will hopefully work in concert with a much-improved tactical kicking game to ensure the Wallabies have to try all their fancy stuff from inside their own territory. Australia’s kickers – Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale – cannot match the distance Morne and Francois Steyn, Ruan Pienaar and Zane Kirchner are capable of getting.
In fact, they often prefer the little grubber through under pressure and it’s a pity Pat Lambie won’t be at fullback to counter-attack off such opportunities.
Vermeulen, his previous international hopes ravaged by injury, makes his long-awaited Test debut on Saturday and the Western Province man is a frightening prospect at boiling point. He will have to spearhead a much more physical display from the pack if South Africa are to have any hope of claiming the inaugural Rugby Championship trophy.
But it’s all very well being physical; however, the ball-carriers have to be smart as well. Too much hard-earned front-foot ball was wasted against Argentina because the carrier just blindly ran into a gang-tackle, was put on the ground and then robbed of the ball.
While the Cape’s demand to throw every ball to the wings can only lead to trouble at international level, the offload seems to be a forgotten skill amongst the Springboks. It stands to reason that if three people are trying to gang-tackle the ball-carrier, there must be two gaps somewhere – and that’s where the ball should go, post-haste!
A titanic clash between two of the most exciting scrumhalves in Francois Hougaard and Genia has been dashed by Hougaard’s move to the wing, but hopefully the 24-year-old will still get the chance to go flying down the left.
Genia is the Wallabies’ attacking general and it will be a disaster for the Springboks if they give him and elusive flyhalf Cooper space to attack with front-foot ball.
Cooper is barely a factor with slow ball but South Africa also has to be vigilant that its team does not supply potent counter-attackers such as Beale, Digby Ioane, Dominic Shipperley and Adam Ashley-Cooper with poorly-directed or badly chased kicks.
Australia also has to cope with a raft of injuries. Captains have had a particularly bad run with both lock James Horwill and loose forward David Pocock ruled out.
Nathan Sharpe, playing his 108th Test, brings a wealth of experience and plenty of grunt to the second row, while Pocock’s replacement, Michael Hooper, is a top-class prospect and also a major factor at the breakdown.
Other key players out injured are late withdrawal Stephen Moore, James O’Connor, Pat McCabe and Wycliff Palu.
It all just increases the pressure on the Wallabies, who will be expected to win at home, and let’s not forget that there has been even more of a song and dance about their coach, Robbie Deans, than the discontent Heyneke Meyer has had to face.
Winning in Australia may be too much to expect from this new-look Springbok team – South Africa has only won four Tests since 1993 Down Under (three of them in Perth though) – but fans will hope to see a much more clinical performance from the side, as well as much better use of its own ball.And, vitally, stopping Australia from playing (much like Argentina did to them in Mendoza) will increase that pressure and might lead to crucial mistakes from the hosts. DM
Photo: South Africa's Bryan Habana breaks past Argentina's Martin Landajo and Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino (R) during their rugby union test match in Cape Town, August 18, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings