The anti-Zane Kirchner brigade will be up in arms but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has wisely returned the reliable, relatively experienced player to fullback, while retaining the flair of Willie le Roux for the Rugby Championship Test against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday. By KEN BORLAND.
Rugby Championship Tests in Australia call for a certain austerity – the average score of 19-18 to South Africa in 76 matches against the Wallabies since 1933 indicates how difficult it has been for the Springboks to beat them – and sticking to the team structure and getting the basics right are vital when the margins are so small at the top level.
Kirchner is the sort of solid, unflashy player that coaches love and teams need, whatever the public might think.
Teams that don’t lay a solid platform usually find themselves on the losing side at the highest level and Kirchner will provide composure under the high ball and defensive prowess at the back as Australia are likely to launch an aerial bombardment on the Springboks and then unleash their potent back three.
While it’s difficult for the opposition to govern the talents of a player like Le Roux, it’s also difficult for his own team to rely on them and build a game around them.
But amid protests that Meyer is too conservative in his selections, it is pleasing to see that he has still found place for Le Roux in his starting team – replacing Bjorn Basson on the wing – despite how fragile he looked under the high ball in a poor display in Argentina. Meyer’s faith in outside centre JJ Engelbrecht and wing Bryan Habana is also more because of what they offer on attack than their defensive capabilities.
“There’s this perception of Zane that he’s only a kicking fullback, but the teams he’s played for in SuperRugby have always scored lots of tries. Last year he played fullback for us against Australia at Loftus Versfeld and we scored five tries.
“So he does take counter-attacking opportunities, he’s a very good defender and solid under the high ball too. He’s a quality player who has done well for us,” Meyer said in Brisbane on Wednesday.
“Willie is an easy switch for Bjorn, because you want an attacking guy in there. He will have a lot of time to roam as well. So I believe this is an attacking backline with the changes,” Meyer added.
Kirchner missed most of this year’s SuperRugby competition with a hand injury, but to prove Meyer’s point, last year the Bulls scored 50 tries in the tournament, the second most. Kirchner scored six of those, second only to wing Bjorn Basson with 10.
The other changes that Meyer has made to the side that struggled to victory over Argentina in Mendoza should ensure that the Springboks bring the added physicality and focus on the breakdowns that they will definitely need in order to prevent Australia from playing with the pace and freedom that has always made the Suncorp Stadium a burial ground for the South Africans.
The Springboks have really struggled whenever the breakdowns have degenerated into a free-for-all and players like Bismarck du Plessis and Flip van der Merwe, brought in to start at hooker and number five lock respectively, will be looking to protect their ball with their physical presence.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of brute force winning the breakdown battle, technical details such as how players carry the ball into the rucks, when and how the cleaners operate and how the other players protect the ball is also crucial.
“We obviously want to be physical, that’s the way we play, and Flip adds something in the rucks and mauls. He’s a great cleaner and ball-carrier, so what we lose in the lineout with Juandre Kruger going to the bench, we gain at the breakdown.
“We want to be as physical as possible within the rules, but we need to be focused and clinical, not emotional – that doesn’t win you Tests,” Meyer said.
There may be sporadic rioting by disgruntled fans over the retention of Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf but the experienced halfback had a great game against Argentina at Soccer City, and his life was not made any easier by the shambles at the rucks in Mendoza.
But with Jano Vermaak and Piet van Zyl, both known for their snappy service, in the squad, Pienaar will know he needs to be in much better form this weekend.
Australia, meanwhile, have probably played into Meyer’s hands – whatever fake enthusiasm he showed for the player during the week – by choosing Quade Cooper in the number 10 jersey.
Cooper is probably as one-dimensional a rugby player as Kirchner is and it means Australia have to gain dominance in the set-pieces and rucks for their flyhalf to weave what are magical skills when the mood grabs him. But those same skills can become a liability if they are being attempted behind the advantage line.
The nuggety Nick Cummins comes in on the wing for the Wallabies, with Israel Folau, a potent threat with ball in hand but also blessed with a good boot, moving to fullback, where he can pose an even more direct threat to the Springboks.
South Africa’s excellent form in the scrums and the Australians’ own problems there have prompted coach Ewen McKenzie, a great prop himself, to bring Sekope Kepu in at tighthead.
While a moment of magic from the likes of Le Roux, Cooper or Folau might well put their side in position to win the game, there is no doubt that if the other players on the team are not doing all the vital, unglamorous work for the full 80 minutes, that will lose the match.
Australia: 15-Israel Folau, 14-Nick Cummins, 13-Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12-Christian Leali’ifano, 11-James O’Connor, 10-Quade Cooper, 9-Will Genia, 8-Ben Mowen, 7-Michael Hooper, 6-Scott Fardy, 5-James Horwill, 4-Rob Simmons, 3-Sekope Kepu, 2-Stephen Moore, 1-James Slipper. Replacements – 16-Saia Fainga’a, 17-Scott Sio, 18-Ben Alexander, 19-Kane Douglas, 20-Jake Schatz, 21-Nic White, 22-Matt Toomua, 23-Jesse Mogg.
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Haban, 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. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Zane Kirchner captures the ball against Ireland in the international rugby union match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin November 10, 2012. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
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