Springboks face bruising times ahead if they give Wallabies any gaps
Australia are as much of a danger as rugby-mad New Zealand, even if they don’t seem to be.
Believe it or not, the easy part of the Springboks’ Test season has drawn to a close. Jacques Nienaber’s side will play seven of their next eight matches overseas – and if history is anything to go by, the odds are against South Africa finishing 2022 with a win record in excess of the traditional 62% Bok benchmark.
The Boks are in Australia ahead of the matches against the Wallabies on 27 August and 3 September. They will face Argentina in Buenos Aires on 17 September before hosting the Pumas in Durban a week later.
The toughest phase of their schedule will follow in Europe when they tackle Ireland and France – the two top-ranked teams in the world – as well as Italy. The four-Test tour will conclude with a clash against England outside the international window.
On the back foot
The Boks beat Wales 2-1 in the series staged in July, yet the solitary and historic defeat in Bloemfontein – where Nienaber made 19 changes to the match 23 with a view to the 2023 World Cup – still rankles.
The world champions showed their class when they thumped the All Blacks 26-10 in Mbombela, but failed to live up to their high standards a week later in Johannesburg, where they suffered a heavy 35-23 loss.
Though this Bok group has the players and the game plan to be the best side in the world, a record of three wins in five home matches reflects their inconsistency. If they don’t improve in the coming months, Test rugby’s third-ranked side will continue to tumble down the World Rugby ladder.
Some have already installed the South Africans as favourites for the two-Test mini-series in Australia – given that the Wallabies are without stars such as Michael Hooper, Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper, and are coming off a 48-17 loss to Argentina. And yet history tells us that the Wallabies, regardless of their personnel or their place in the rankings, have dominated more-fancied Bok teams in Australia for the better part of three decades.
Long drought Down Under
Since the game went professional in 1996, the Boks have won four out of 29 Tests against the Wallabies in their part of the world. It’s been nine long years since the Boks’ last success Down Under – a 38-12 bonus-point victory in Brisbane.
Much is made of the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand, and particularly the All Blacks’ impressive record against their nemesis on New Zealand soil: 20 wins, one draw, and only four losses in the professional era. Less is made of the fact that the Boks’ record in Australia is as bad – or even worse, when you consider that South Africa’s win percentage in Australia during this period (13%) is marginally inferior to their success rate in New Zealand (16%).
It’s particularly hard to fathom when you consider that the All Blacks – their recent struggles aside – have dominated Test rugby for much of the professional era. The Wallabies were the best side on the planet at the turn of the century – winning back-to-back Tri-Nations titles and the 1999 World Cup – but have failed to replicate that form in the subsequent 20 years.
Australian rugby doesn’t have the resources of its South African or New Zealand counterparts. Cricket, Aussie Rules football, rugby league and soccer are just some of the sports that are more popular than rugby union, and it’s fair to say that the other codes attract the bulk of the country’s top athletes.
By contrast, rugby is one of the most popular sports in South Africa and kids grow up with the dream of representing the Boks. This invites the question: why do the Boks – with their superior resources and personnel – routinely fail to win against a limited side like the Wallabies?
“For some reason, we struggle to win the mental game in Australia,” Duane Vermeulen said. Though the Bok No 8 was prominent in South Africa’s last victory back in 2013, he has also been involved in several losses on Australian soil.
“Last year, we got drawn into playing the same [expansive] game plan that they usually favour. What’s funny is that they started to play our traditional brand – kicking a lot more to apply the pressure and win territory.”
Heyneke Meyer was the coach when the Boks prevailed 38-12 some nine years ago. He relishes that success, but is quick to remember his side’s failures in Australia in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
“Our players never have a problem getting up for matches against New Zealand,” Meyer told BokSquad.
“That isn’t always the case with Australia. With all due to respect to the Wallabies, our forwards always believe they can overpower them up front, whereas they know they are always in for a big battle against the All Blacks.
“When it’s gone wrong for us in Australia, it’s because their forwards have played well enough to allow their brilliant backs to play an open game. If you give the Wallabies space, they can punish you.
“To win in Australia, the Boks will have to strangle the Wallabies from the start.”
Vermeulen said the Wallabies would be hurting after their series loss to England in July, and after copping such a big defeat by the Pumas in Argentina.
The Boks should take nothing for granted, though, as they’ve paid a high price for underestimating the Wallabies in the past.
“We need to take the lessons from last year on board and try to focus on our own game. We have to limit the number of errors,” Vermeulen said. “It won’t be easy, because they will be in our faces and there will be plenty of banter. We will have to manage that.”
The Boks could revive their season with two wins in Australia, and take some momentum into the clashes against Argentina and on to the subsequent European tour.
Two losses Down Under, however, and they will be hard-pressed to finish the season with seven or eight wins, as well as a modest win record of 60%. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.