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The big breakdown battle in Brisbane

Tue, 03 Sep 2013 05:58
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You see the passion he brings to the game
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There are a multitude of factors that can influence the outcome of a Test match, but the focus has shifted firmly onto the breakdown.

When Australia host South Africa in their Round Three Rugby Championship match in Brisbane on Saturday the characters will be new, but the storyline in the drama remains unchanged.

Perhaps it is the lingering hangover of the controversial events of their 2011 World Cup quarterfinal showdown, but the breakdown was again a key point when Springbok forwards coach Johann van Graan and veteran hooker Bismarck du Plessis addressed a media scrum in Brisbane on Saturday.

This time round Irishman George Clancy is the referee - not polemical Bryce Lawrence, who was eventually forced to retire from the game in the wake of his disputatious 40-odd 'missed calls' in Wellington, New Zealand, two years ago.

Injured David Pocock is also out of the picture, but in Michael Hooper the Wallabies have an equally dangerous openside flank, with awesome poaching abilities at the breakdown.

It has been suggested that Australia's superiority in this crucial aspect of the game is one of the key reasons why the Boks have only beaten the Wallabies once in their last six encounters.

It was not surprising then that the questions focussed on the impact that the Springboks' new Scottish breakdown expert Richie Gray could have on the visitors' game on Saturday.

Du Plessis, set to replace in-form Adriaan Strauss in the middle of the Bok front row, will need to put on display his full array of breakdown skills - both cleaning and poaching - when he steps onto the Suncorp Stadium turf on Saturday.

He spoke of the passion the Scotsman brought to the Bok camp, when asked about Gray's influence.

"If you just work for half-an-hour with Richie [Gray] you will see the passion he brings to the game and the passion he has for his aspect of the game," Du Plessis told the media gathering.

While the set pieces remain important, the 29-year-old Bok hooker feels that broken field play has become more influential in determining the outcome of games.

"Where there's maybe 10 line-outs in the game and maybe 10 scrums in the game, there's between 120 and 180 breakdowns in the game," Du Plessis said, adding: "It is really something you want to create pressure on the opposition [when defending] and if you want to create opportunities for yourself you have to be great at the breakdown."

Asked what Gray has changed about the Bok game, the Bok No.2 said the Scotsman worked on improving their technique.

"[He is] making us better cleaners, getting us [our body positions] lower and getting us top know when to clean the threat and when to just secure the ball."

Du Plessis added that the Boks will look for a massive improvement from their last outing, when they scraped to a 22-17 win over Argentina in Mendoza a fortnight ago.

"The day you no longer want to improve is the day you should stop playing," he said, when asked about the Boks' struggles at the breakdown against an Argentinean team given far too much leeway by Steve Walsh.

"We want t improve every game - we definitely want to improve on our game from Mendoza.

"However, as [forwards coach] Johann [van Graan] said, that is two weeks into the past and we face a totally different animal this week."

While most pundits will focus on Hooper, who has stepped up impressively in the wake of the knee injury that ruled Pocock out for the rest of the year, Van Graan felt the Wallabies' breakdown strength and threat comes right across the field.

"You have to give credit to the Australians, they have adapted their game in the last year," Van Graan told the media scrum.

"It is not only Michael Hooper that steals, if you look around that whole team every breakdown is a contest now.

"[There are] guys like Stephen Moore, Scott Fardy and Adam Ashley-Cooper - some of the best stealers in the game."

He said you only have to look at Australia's two Rugby Championship Tests against All Black Tests and the series against the British and Irish Lions in June and July to realise that every breakdown is a contest nowadays.

"It was just like we saw in our first five Tests in 2013," the Boks' forwards mentor said, adding: "In Test match rugby you can't get away with an easy breakdown.

"Obviously we focus on our ball carriers and our cleaners."

He also spoke of the Boks' troubles with the Puma forwards two weeks ago and pointed out that they regrouped at half-time and came out with a different intent in the last 40 minutes.

"Perhaps our reaction time wasn't good enough in Mendoza, but we've corrected it well in the second half.

"[But] that's long gone now. It's a new game on Saturday and I can guarantee you the breakdown will have a huge influence on both teams."

Van Graan was not willing to get drawn into selection questions, but was full of praise for both Du Plessis and Strauss.

"Luckily I am not selecting the team," he said, adding: "We have a brilliant squad of players. We have been working very hard on the breakdown.

"Adriaan Strauss has played some of the best rugby of his life this past year. Bismarck [du Plessis] is a world class player and he has played some amazing games for the Sharks and the Springboks and if he does get selected I am sure he will do his bit at the breakdown."

The Bok mentor was also not keen to linger too long when the questions shifted to the role of match officials.

"Whoever referees the game, we have to adapt," Van Graan said.

"We've got George Clancy again, and he reffed us well [against New Zealand] in Dunedin and [Scotland] at Murrayfield last year. He is one of the world's best.

"Both sides have to adapt to the referee on Saturday."

He said the Boks always try and adapt during the first half, and reassess the situation at half-time.

He added that there are two examples of how South Africa struggled in the first half this year, but bounced back after the break – when they came from behind to beat Scotland in Nelspruit in June and then again against Argentina in Mendoza  last month.

"Both teams have to adapt, but that is why you have coaches and world class players," Van Graan said, adding: "I'm sure our guys will adapt again this weekend and the Australian players do the same."

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