Preview: Australia v South Africa
The true measure of the Springboks’ evolution as a developing side will be revealed when they face the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
The true measure of the Springboks’ evolution as a developing side will be revealed when they face the Wallabies at their Brisbane fortress Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
This contest carries great significance for both nations.
Essentially, it’s a battle between desperation and progression as the Wallabies are on a three-match losing skid while the Springboks are riding an eight-match winning streak.
These are two teams with contrasting trajectories that are on a collision course that will provide great insight into their standings in world rugby.
The result and respective performances will gauge just how far the Springboks have come under Heyneke Meyer as well as how far the Wallabies have fallen over the past year.
The hosts are in dire straits following three consecutive comprehensive defeats - the 16-41 thrashing in the decisive third Test of the British and Irish Lions series and back-to-back losses to the All Blacks.
Although they fell well short in their quest to regain the Bledisloe Cup, their last outing - a 16-27 defeat in Wellington - was a step in the right direction and answered some burning questions.
New coach Ewen McKenzie has acted and has made some key changes in personnel, all of which hint at a more dangerous and formidable Wallaby outfit.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is more focused on the tweaked Wallabies’ potential potency than their recent defeats.
“The one thing about the Australian team is that they have a lot of skilful players, among the forwards and backs. Their forwards can also play like backs if they get their game going and they are on the front foot and they have confidence on the day, even though they have gone through a bad patch lately,” said Meyer.
“But look at the teams they played - those [British and Irish Lions and New Zealand] are all world-class sides. If you look at the series against the British and Irish Lions, it is the same thing that happened between South African and [the British and Irish] Lions, it was one kick that decided the series. They have also played the All Blacks twice, where they have been in the game [only to lose through a late blow-out].”
With Reds duo Will Genia and Quade Cooper reunited at No.9 and No.10, the Springboks will be determined to gain ascendency up front to keep the hosts on the back foot and put the pair under pressure.
“They are the type of side where if they get going and get quick ball, especially with Genia and [Cooper], if they get quick ball they are dangerous. I must choose my words carefully here, but they are close to the most dangerous backs in the world,” said Meyer.
The Springbok mentor stressed that the Wallabies are far from just a flashy running side and highlighted the set pieces as the areas in which they’ve made the greatest improvement.
“Where they've improved most in the last few years is their set pieces. Their scrummaging, which was a problem in the past, is now up there with the best, their line-out contesting is always good and now with the Brumbies, they have shown that they can also maul, so there are not a lot of weak points in the team,” he said.
Home ground advantage holds great weight in this rivalry, and while the Springboks have momentum on their side, the Wallabies may have a psychological edge given South Africa have never won at Suncorp Stadium.
“They have always been difficult to beat at home,” admitted Meyer.
“They are a quality side and if you look at all the top sides in the world, you will lose one or two matches. We respect them and feel they have a great all-round gameplan and superior athletes with some really skilful players.
"If we don't stop their quick ball and we give them space and quick ball on the front foot it will always be hard for South Africa to play against them,” he added.
Players to watch:
For Australia: Look no further than Quade Cooper, who will don the Wallaby No.10 jersey for the first time in 12 months. He may not be the most consistent flyhalf around, but he remains a quintessential match winner, who brings a different dimension to the Wallabies. He and Will Genia bring out the best in one another and their vast experience as a combination will bode well for an otherwise young Australian outfit. Israel Folau starts his first Test at fullback, where he’s at his lethal best, with the tough-as-nails Nick Cummins bringing his tonic of intensity and physicality to the party. Kane Douglas has the massive boots of James Horwill to fill after the Wallaby captain was forced to withdraw from the side due to a hamstring injury, while Ben Mowen will be playing for his place in the run-on side after a couple of sub-par performances.
For South Africa: The spotlight will fall on Zane Kirchner, who has been fast-tracked straight into the stating line-up. He has had precious little game time over the past few months due to a niggling hand injury and hasn’t played for the Springboks since last November, so there are plenty of question marks behind his selection. A dependable yet predictable No.15, his selection suggests South Africa will revert to their much-maligned kick-and-chase tactic. Meyer is adamant that Kirchner is an attacking threat, so the Bulls fullback will have plenty to prove. With Kirchner back in the mix, mercurial Willie le Roux shifts to the wing, where he may be more comfortable having played there in 16 of the Cheetahs’ 17 Super Rugby matches this year. Bismarck du Plessis and Flip van der Merwe have also been drafted into the run-on side to provide some extra grunt up front and will be the key role players in the Springbok line-out.
Head to head: No positional battle will be of more importance on Saturday than the one between Will Genia and Ruan Pienaar. Genia is the heartbeat and tactical genius of the Wallabies and has been handed the added responsibility of captaining the side in the absence of James Horwill. He’s led his country on three previous occasions and has proven composure and big match temperament, but the Wallabies may be expecting too much of their star player. Pienaar’s experience is paramount to the Springboks’ cause but he’s come under fire in recent weeks for his lackadaisical clearing from the base. He’ll need to prove himself in Brisbane. In the other key clash, two of the world’s premier fetchers, Michael Hooper and Francois Louw, will battle for breakdown supremacy. Bismarck du Plessis will assist Louw at the tackle, but the onus will remain on the Bath flank to protect and poach ball on the ground.
2012: South Africa won 31-8, Pretoria
2012: Australia won 26-19, Perth
2011: Australia won 11-9, Wellington (World Cup quarterfinal)
2011: Australia won 14-9, Durban
2011: Australia won 39-20, Sydney
2010: Australia won 41-39, Bloemfontein
2010: South Africa won 44-31, Pretoria
2010: Australia won 30-13, Brisbane
2009: Australia won 21-6, Brisbane
2009: South Africa won 32-25, Perth
2009: South Africa won 29-17, Cape Town
Prediction: Meyer’s Springboks have made significant strides over the past year but the fact remains that they are still very much a work in progress. They have the potential to develop into a special side but at this stage they are raw and crucially, in the context of this clash, suspect travellers. Better Springbok teams have tried and failed to break the Suncorp curse, so it’s highly unlikely that Meyer’s charges will be the ones to break the bogey on Saturday. The Wallabies have lost four of their last five but they know how to beat the Boks - having won seven of the last nine games between the sides - especially on Australian soil. History will repeat itself rather than be made, but it’ll be a close, hard-fought affair. Wallabies by five.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 James O'Connor, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (captain), 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Jesse Mogg.
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandre Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Date: Saturday, September 7
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 20.05 (12.05 SA time; 10.05 GMT)
Expected weather: Sunny and mild with a 16km/h north wind. A high of 26° and low of 12°.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld