THE RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Boks target redemption with rare victory Down Under against wobbly Wallabies
The Boks have a poor record in Australia, but on Saturday they have a good chance of winning Down Under for the first time in nine years.
There are only five players in the current Springbok squad who have tasted success in Australia. Captain Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Willie le Roux — the latter has been left out of Saturday’s squad.
That victory came in 2013 when the Springboks walloped the Wallabies 38-12 in Brisbane. The Boks have since lost seven matches on Australian soil.
“It’s an incredible record that the Wallabies have against [the Boks]. In a way, they’ve been our bogey team. They seem to perform better against us than most other opposition,” former Melbourne Rebels head coach David Wessels told Daily Maverick.
This Wallabies team, however, does not have the venom of the victorious sides of the past. They also face an injury crisis, almost able to name a full 15-player team of unavailable players.
Instrumental players are on the sidelines. Quade Cooper sustained a season-ending Achilles tendon tear on tour in Argentina, while his inside centre partner Samu Kerevi is also on the sidelines for the rest of the year due to a knee injury sustained during the Commonwealth Games. He represented Australia in the Sevens rugby event.
Their inspirational captain, Michael Hooper, is also unavailable for selection after leaving Argentina to return to Australia for mental health reasons.
“They’ve got a lot of challenges around injury at the moment. When everyone’s fit, they certainly have a matchday 23 that can challenge and beat any of the best teams in the world,” said Wessels.
“The challenge for them now is to prove that they can sustain that level of performance even when they start to have one or two injuries like they have at the moment, particularly in key positions.”
The Springboks, on the other hand, are a settled squad, fielding virtually the same team week in and week out.
“When you look at the two teams, you’re looking at two very different groups. The Boks are incredibly settled — you’re seeing guys like Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, [Steven] Kitshoff… all of those guys racking up 50 Tests almost in succession — so you’ve got this really experienced nucleus of a team that’s played together for a long time,” said Wessels, “versus a Wallaby group that’s still going through a lot of changes and still feels like they haven’t been able to solidify what their best 15 is, partly because of injury.
“The two teams are in very different states at the moment. I think it is quite a challenge for the Wallabies this weekend to keep their record intact.”
Australia opened their Rugby Championship campaign with a solid 41-26 victory against Argentina in Argentina before succumbing to a record 48-17 defeat against the same opposition a fortnight ago.
“Dave Rennie is a very good coach. They’ve had relative success. One of the challenges that would be frustrating them is their [lack of] ability to win consistently and to really build an ethos around winning within the team,” said Wessels.
“They tend to have a very good performance — they beat Argentina away in the first Test of this year’s Rugby Championship — then, the next Test, it’s almost like a totally different team that turns up. They’ll have a lot of frustrations around that and they’ll be wanting to find some consistency.”
Lack of depth
Australia’s injury woes are compounded by the fact that they are only allowed to select three overseas-based players in their squads. Cooper’s recent injury made it possible for Japan-based Bernard Foley to return to the mix, having not played for Australia since the 2019 World Cup.
In contrast, South African coach Jacques Nienaber is allowed to select as many overseas-based players as he wants.
“Rennie is not able to pick as many foreign [based] players as he wants. They do that to try and encourage players to stay in Australia,” said Wessels.
“If you look at some of the players they have playing overseas — the Arnold brothers, Will Skelton, Kurtley Beale, Adam Coleman, Liam Gill, Sean McMahon — they’ve got some really talented players that are not all eligible to be in the mix, which is different to the position the Springboks are in.
“I think if the Wallabies were able to pick all those players, they would have a lot more depth than what they have now and they’d be very consistently competitive.”
Australia also has a lack of player participation in rugby union, which contributes to its lack of depth at the highest level. The sport is not in the top 10 most participated-in sports in the country. Australian rules football and rugby league participation greatly outnumbers the number of athletes playing rugby union in Australia.
“I’ve spent my last four years in Australia in Melbourne and there’s 27 professional sports teams just in Melbourne. Some of those are really enormous clubs,” said Wessels.
“Some of the AFL [Australian Football League] clubs have 100,000 members; it’s got a long waiting list for membership. So, rugby union is in a competitive landscape. Rugby league is a massive sport, in terms of viewership it is bigger than rugby union. The competition for talent is really significant.
“For the Wallabies and Australia to win long-term, it’s not just coaching, it’s not just the players on the field. There needs to be a whole improvement of the ecosystem around the sport to be able to continuously attract talent.”
With two rounds of The Rugby Championship played, you can be excused for thinking the table is upside down, with the All Blacks at the bottom, Argentina on top and the Wallabies and Springboks making up second and third respectively.
Australia have arguably had the easiest start to the championship, having played Argentina in consecutive matches. Before that, they lost a three-match home series 2-1 against England.
This means they have only won two of their five matches in 2022 and still have to play two games each against South Africa and New Zealand.
“I think there’s a lot still to be done for them; it feels like they’re a way behind a team like Ireland or the Springboks or the French,” said Wessels.
“I definitely think they have the ability to beat any team on their day with their best players on the field. Are they able to do that if they don’t have Samu Kerevi and the like available? That remains to be seen.”
The Boks are coming off a 35-23 defeat to the All Blacks at Ellis Park and will be hungry to return to their winning ways.
“The Springboks had a very poor performance in that second Test against the All Blacks. They’ll be wanting to set the record straight and I think they’ll be wanting to win overseas. They know in order to win the next World Cup they have to beat most of these teams away from home,” said Wessels.
“It was a really big deal a few years ago when we beat the All Blacks in Wellington and the Springboks will be trying to replicate that by trying to beat the Wallabies in Australia. It’s an important stepping stone for them.” DM
15 Reece Hodge, 14 Tom Wright, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Hunter Paisami, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Nic White, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Fraser McReight, 6 Jed Holloway, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper (captain)
Reserves: 16 David Porecki, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Tate McDermott, 23 Andrew Kellaway