On Saturday in Brisbane South Africa’s unbeaten Rugby Championship campaign will be severely tested by a Wallaby team that has won just one of five Tests this year. As has been the case in previous meetings, the battle of the breakdown will be the key contest. By KEN BORLAND.
When the Springboks play Australia, the battle of the breakdown has always been the key contest and this will once again be the case on Saturday in Brisbane when South Africa’s unbeaten Rugby Championship campaign will be severely tested by a Wallaby team that has won just one of five Tests this year. Openside flanks George Smith, Phil Waugh and David Pocock (who will ever forget the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal?) have been at the forefront of much woe heaped on Springbok heads in Australia, and it’s a rugby truth that teams tend to be slightly favoured by referees when playing at home.
The Wallabies, under pressure to keep rugby union popular in a country where Aussie Rules and league attract a greater following, traditionally favour a running, ball-in-hand approach and quick ball from the rucks is absolutely vital in order to effectively play that way. Because most of their players have had exposure to Aussie Rules as youngsters, they are also good in the air and are certainly not averse to launching high kicks on to the opposition in order to force quick turnover ball. Similarly, when the Springboks have not dominated the collisions, their reliance on front-foot ball has also been exposed and their attacking ability is even more reliant on it.
So the breakdowns will be the crucial battlefield at the Suncorp Stadium and, unfortunately, it is also the area referees struggle the most with, given the numerous vague laws that apply to it and the massive amount left to interpretation.
Irishman George Clancy will be the referee on Saturday and the Springboks will be praying he polices the rucks way better than he did in 2010 at the same venue as he seemed to apply different rules to the two sides on that day. Australia ran out 30-13 winners the last time the two teams met in Brisbane.
The importance of the breakdown is reflected in the changes coach Heyneke Meyer has made to the pack. Bismarck du Plessis makes his first start since the opening game of last year’s Rugby Championship and the hooker will be looking to explode into action like a bullet shot from an AK47, bringing his enormous physical presence to the rucks and mauls. Juandre Kruger, a terrific lineout exponent, but an also-ran in the physicality stakes in the last match against Argentina, has been replaced by Flip van der Merwe, a tighter lock who carries the ball strongly and also throws his weight around at the rucks.
While most people are focusing on the returns of Quade Cooper and Zane Kirchner to their respective teams’ starting line-ups, Francois Louw and Michael Hooper, the openside flanks, could have an even greater bearing on the result. Louw has a key role to play in slowing down Australia’s ball and ensuring Cooper does not have the time and space to weave his magic, while Hooper, while not yet in the same league as Smith, Pocock and Waugh, will be the focus of the Springbok cleaners. Cooper, as skilful as he is, is also a flaky, temperamental player who seems easily flustered when things are not going his way. So if the Springboks can dominate at source, putting him on the back foot, behind the advantage line and cutting him off from the rest of his exciting backline, then he will be dead in the water and prone to the sort of bad decisions he made during the 2011 World Cup.
The Springboks will kick and try and keep the Wallabies in their territory, but they will need to be extremely accurate with both the boot and in their chasing lines because of the huge threat posed by the Australian back three, especially fullback Israel Folau, who has the limbs of a giraffe and the speed of a cheetah. Clinical execution will be the watchword across the board for the Springboks, because a slipped tackle will allow the Wallabies to show how lethal they are when attacking space, and losing composure at a ruck will only lead to penalties.
Australia will certainly miss their inspirational captain and lock James Horwill, who pulled out with a hamstring strain on Thursday, depriving them of physicality and experience in the second row. But the Springbok management have also warned that Eben Etzebeth is battling a stomach bug and the enforcer of their pack is a doubtful starter himself.
The Springboks and their supporters have far too often just expected to physically dominate the Wallabies and smash them in the scrums and lineouts, but the reality is that they have more often than not stood up to the challenge. The Australian backline is clearly their most potent threat, but it is not their only strength, as Meyer warned this week.
“It’s always tough against Australia. Their pack has been underestimated, I thought they played well against the British and Irish Lions, and I’m expecting great Test rugby. We know it will be physical, it’s not just about their attacking backs. Ewen McKenzie is a great coach and he believes in the set-pieces the same as me,” Meyer said.
Meyer will be banking on the ability of his men to not make mistakes under pressure, while putting the Wallabies under enough stress to provide scoring opportunities for his team. The inclusion of Cooper at flyhalf provides a target and the way to get to Cooper is through his scrumhalf Will Genia. The way to ensure the brilliant Genia is hassled and harried is through the forwards, dominating the set-pieces and collisions to force back-foot ball.
It all sounds so simple, but to beat Australia at home is never easy. South Africa have never managed it at Suncorp Stadium but that piece of history is just begging to be rewritten. DM
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-Kane Douglas, 4-Rob Simmons, 3-Sekope Kepu, 2-Stephen Moore, 1-James Slipper. Replacements – 16-Saia Fainga’a, 17-Scott Sio, 18-Ben Alexander, 19-Ben McCalman, 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.
Photo: South Africa’s Springboks’ Zane Kirchner (top) is tackled by Australia’s Wallabies’ Anthony Faingaa during their Rugby Championship test match in Pretoria, September 29, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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