In the end, it could come down to who wants it more
Pride will supersede championship points when the Springboks and the Wallabies lock horns in Perth on Saturday.
How the mighty have fallen. Twelve short months ago, these two teams were on top of the world. The Springboks were world champions, the Wallabies, Tri-Nations champions.
Fast forward to today and you’ll find these sides a shell of their former selves. Although they remain the second and third-ranked teams in Rugby Union, the gab between them and the all-conquering All Blacks has widened significantly.
Their fall from grace has been as spectacular as it has been sudden. 2012 was always going to be a difficult year for the Springboks. This was anticipated, with several legends calling time on their international careers and a new coach with a fresh philosophy taking over the reins.
It’s clear that the majority of the players, as well as Heyneke Meyer himself, are still finding their feet at international level. Excelling at provincial level is all well and good, but the step up to Test match rugby is a demanding one that has exposed many top prospects - players and coaches alike.
Meyer has predictably stuck to the formula that won him four Currie Cups and a Super Rugby title. In theory, his forwards-based, low-risk approach plays to the strengths of big, muscular South African players.
Why it hasn’t brought similar success at this early stage of the Meyer era is two-fold. Firstly, the game and skill level of players has evolved considerably since Meyer’s glory days at the Bulls between 2002 and 2007, and secondly, his selection hasn’t been sound.
Where teams struggled to negotiate the pin-point kicking game of the Boks and Bulls in the past, they have largely negated the tactic by putting an emphasis on improving the high ball skills of their back three.
The loss of Fourie du Preez’s irreplaceable precision and Meyer’s insistence in asking Francois Hougaard to impersonate the great scrumhalf is self-defeating in that it merely results in kicking away possession.
Meyer has seemingly relaxed his stance on the need of a specialist openside flanker with his selection of Francois Louw, but anything other than a starting role for the Bath-based scavenger would expose his call-up as farcical.
Again, teething problems were expected for the Boks in what’s a rebuilding year for them. The Wallabies’ demise, however, has come as a bit of a shock. Theirs is not due to circumstances but rather affliction as the traditionally attack-minded players are not buying into Robbie Deans’ game plan. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
These two rugby giants thus find themselves in a dark and desperate place, and both will view Saturday’s showdown at Paterson’s Stadium as an opportunity to regain some lost pride.
This, rather than the championship points on offer, will be their main objective as the All Blacks have already all but sewn up the Rugby Championship title.
What transpired in the opening rounds of the four-nation tournament has left both the Boks and Wallabies physically fragile and emotionally vulnerable, but the Australians will have some hope to cling on to.
Not only will they enjoy the benefit of home ground advantage, but their confidence will also be boosted by the knowledge that they’ve won the last four encounters and lost just one of the last seven Tests against the men in green and gold.
Revenge for their quarterfinal defeat in last year’s World Cup will serve as an added incentive for the Boks. The fact remains, however, that they’re an inexperienced side peppered with youngsters on their first Australasian tour with the Boks.
In that sense, it’s advantage Australia - but beware the wounded Springbok. In the end, it could come down to who wants it more.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld