Sport

HIGHVELD HAUNT

Boks and Wallabies to let solid performances do the talking after frivolous week of verbal scrumming

Boks and Wallabies to let solid performances do the talking after frivolous week of verbal scrumming
Damian Willemse is on the bench against the Wallabies tomorrow while Cobus Reinach (background) makes his first Test start since 2021. (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Hopefully, the Springboks versus Wallabies Rugby Championship opener at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday is better than the verbal jousting this week, which was frankly tepid.

For a Test involving Eddie Jones and an increasingly visible Rassie Erasmus, the ‘war of words’ was barely more than a late-night push and shove outside a bar.

Jones did reference the Pretoria crowd’s penchant for ‘Brandy and Coke” and Rassie did say Eddie was “like a box of chocolates,” but overall, it was all very cordial.

 

Eddie recalled the you-had-to-be-there joke when Jean de Villiers played the Blue Bulls song for him when he first arrived to help Jake White with the Boks in 2007, but it wasn’t that amusing. It was probably funnier at the time.

Jones, who not only has the job of turning the Wallabies around into World Cup contenders in a few months but also making the Australian public take notice of rugby union again, naturally has a lot on his mind.

It doesn’t help that the match clashes with The Ashes, currently into the third Test at Headingley in Leeds. For a sport battling for popularity in Australia, it could do without the clash.

Jones couldn’t have asked for a better assignment to start his second tenure as Wallaby coach though. Taking on the current world champions at Loftus, a venue where the Wallabies have never beaten the Boks, is certainly an easier sell than starting against a tier-two nation.

Which is why Jones was bullish enough to challenge the Aussie public to not only stay up late for a certain cricket match on the go in Leeds, but for the rugby as well. He promised a performance of commitment and character to reward those fans willing to set their clocks early.

The game kicks off at 3am Sydney time.

“I tell you what we’re gonna do, mate. We’re gonna roll up our sleeves and dig in. And if they want to watch that, then I’d stay up. It will be better than The Ashes.”

Boks, Makazole Mapimpi

Makazole Mapimpi scoring a try against the Wallabies last season. Mapimpi is not playing at Loftus tomorrow as he is part of a 14-man group that has flown ahead to New Zealand. (Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Old and new

That is quite a promise considering how compelling the Ashes has been, but both the Boks and Wallabies have teams that look exciting on paper.

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber has paired Cobus Reinach and Manie Libbok at halfback and that alone might be worth the entrance fee.

Reinach is an outside back trapped in a scrumhalf role — one he does very well. Libbok is a player who naturally likes to attack but is intelligent and disciplined enough to understand when to rein it in.

And outside him, he has the bailout of the monstrous Andre Esterhuizen at inside centre and genius of Lukhanyo Am in the next channel. The Boks nine, 10, 12, and 13 for this Test just feels like an experiment that is going to pay off.

There is so much vision and flair between Reinach, Libbok and Am, and brute strength from Esterhuizen that the back three of Canan Moodie, Kurt Lee Arendse and Willie le Roux must be doing mental high fives.

This is a backline primed to attack, but attack with head and as much heart. Libbok has proved, through two superb seasons in the United Rugby Championship and in three Test appearances off the bench, that he sees opportunities where others see trouble.

That’s not to say he is mistake-free, but he is burden-free. If he makes a mistake he moves on and doesn’t let it impact his next act. Libbok is a player who has mastered the art of being present, of only focusing on the moment. Whether he does something brilliant or something mediocre he doesn’t allow it to influence his next decision.

Manie Libbok will make his first Test start for the Springboks when they meet Australia at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Am has the same unflappable temperament and Arendse, Moodie and Le Roux have that similar mixture of laid-back aloofness and high-impact presence.

While the men behind the scrum have the skill and temperament to make magic, the pack is more blue-collar.

Captain Duane Vermeulen is clearly no longer the Boks’ first-choice eighthman, with Jasper Wiese now the chosen one. Vermeulen though, is still a huge presence and a man players will rally behind. He leads by example and doesn’t suffer fools from either the opposition or his own team. In many ways, he is the perfect skipper for this experimental team.

There are few suspect links in the side although lock Jean Kleyn on debut is an established provincial player but hasn’t played a Test in four years when he turned out for Ireland.

Second row partner Marvin Orie is a useful disruptor but clearly below the likes of Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert in the pecking order. Still, this match presents a massive chance for both players to send a message to the coaching staff that they will be valuable additions at the World Cup later this year.

Considering that the rolling maul has contributed to 37 Bok tries in the past year alone, it’s clear that it will be a weapon of choice again. And stopping it will be a Wallaby priority.

Marika Koroibete, Boks

Wallabies wing Marika Koroibete will be a key player against the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld this weekend. (Photo: Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Wallabies ghosts

The Boks are clearly favourites at a venue where they have never lost to Australia in seven previous attempts going back to 1963. The average winning score for the Boks is 30-15 over the Wallabies at Loftus.

The last time they met in Pretoria, in 2016, the Boks were in a growing crisis having lost three Tests in a row coming to Loftus, which included a 41-13 hiding by the All Blacks just two weeks prior. Yet the Boks beat Australia 18-10 only to go on to be thrashed 57-15 by the All Blacks in Durban a week later.

It underlines that no matter how poor the Boks are, and this year’s side are not poor, Australia battle to cope at Loftus and on the highveld in general.

The current group of players don’t carry that scar tissue of previous failures personally, but somewhere in the Wallabies’ institutional memory, are painful wounds — “ghosts” — as Jones called them.

“We’ve really tried to tackle the ghosts. There are a lot of ghosts of Wallabies teams past lurking around,” Jones said. “We’ve tried to take on the concept of playing at altitude and taking on the concept of playing in front of a fierce crowd.

“Pretoria is probably the loudest crowd you experience around the world. We’re looking forward to it. We’ve got a new team, new captains and four debutants. This team has never won at Loftus and what a fantastic opportunity it is.”

The uncapped quartet are starting flank Tom Hooper (no relation to co-captain Michael Hooper) and substitutes Zane Nonggorr (prop), Richie Arnold (lock) and flyhalf Carter Gordon.

There is a spine of experience in co-captions Michael Hooper (124 caps) and James Slipper (127 caps) along with tighthead prop Allan Ala’alatoa (64) caps in the pack.

Jones, like Nienaber, is building towards the World Cup, but his objectives are quite clear — winning is the only currency that matters.

“Test rugby is always about winning,” Jones said.

“The best process-driven Test rugby coach doesn’t coach. The best winning coaches keep coaching. The same with players. You don’t win, you don’t play.

“You can have great processes and dot your Is and cross your Ts, do all the ice baths and all the saunas, watch all the videos, but unless you’re winning… that’s the only thing we’ve come here for.” DM

Teams:

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff

Reserves: 16 Joseph Dweba, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Evan Roos, 21 Deon Fourie, 22 Grant Williams, 23 Damian Willemse.

Australia

15 Tom Wright; 14 Suliasi Vunivalu, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete; 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nic White; 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Michael Hooper (co-captain), 6 Tom Hooper; 5 Will Skelton, 4 Nick Frost; 3 Allan Ala’alatoa, 2 David Porecki, 1 James Slipper (co-captain)

Reserves: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Zane Nonggorr, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Samu Kerevi, 23 Carter Gordon

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)

Time: 17:05 

 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • paul.stilbaai says:

    Very exciting bench as well. Looking forward to seeing RG, Evan and Deon in action in the second half. Go Bokke!

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Really hope the Boks hit the ground running – and running and running – and give us a great start to the defence of Bill.

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