Win forward battle or be damned
The window of opportunity that it represents only ups the ante even further for the two protagonists in Saturday’s Castle Rugby Championship clash between the Springboks and Wallabies in Perth.
If you were to place yourself in a time machine and transport yourself into a previous year before being presented with a team sheet for the Patersons Oval clash, it is likely you would end up thinking in both instances that the combinations are both well below their usual strength.
Certainly those who are writing off South Africa’s chances are neglecting that their team is not the only one that has flattered only to deceive up to now. Indeed, you could say that the Wallabies haven’t even flattered whereas at least the Boks do have one solid win behind them (they were pretty comfortable in beating Argentina at Newlands).
For all those who are wearing sack-cloth and worrying about impending doom, it is a fact that the Boks haven’t lost yet, and if they win in Perth they won’t be badly placed as they have two home games to look forward to after their trip to Dunedin next Saturday. It is not inconceivable the Boks could find themselves with only one defeat on their record heading into the last game at the FNB Stadium – but that depends on them winning on Saturday.
It’s an old cliché, but this really is a make or break day for both teams.
Neither are quite in crisis yet, but the loser will be.
The Australian team, as it lines up on paper, looks like one the Boks can take advantage of. Michael Hooper is a capable replacement, but he is no David Pocock at openside flank, and the Wallabies of recent years have boasted much better forward combinations generally than they do in this game.
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But herein lies the rub – the injuries that have been added to the retirements of a raft of legendary players should have left the Wallabies rubbing their hands with glee just as much as the Boks will be. Gone are Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Bismarck du Plessis – in short, the five players they would have most feared among the Bok forwards.
The man with the Super Hero build, Eben Etzebeth, is a player with huge promise, and in time might go on to become a real legend of Springbok rugby in the same way that Botha did. But although he was the best South African forward in the awful performance against Argentina in Mendoza two weeks ago, he was pretty much man alone for the 80 minutes in a game where the Bok pack came in a poor second in the battle up front.
And that is where the main focus will be on Saturday. Yes, the Boks can turn this around and it may not quite yet be the crisis some of us are making it out to be, but if there has been one area that has been particularly disappointing in the last three games it has been the failure of the new Bok pack to assert any authority.
Against England in Port Elizabeth in June and a fortnight ago in Argentina the pack, and the tight five in particular, simply failed to get a foothold. If you take that into consideration and if you consider that many criticise Meyer on the basis that he doesn’t appear to have a contingency plan, or Plan B, for such situations, in retrospect it was a minor miracle that Jean de Villiers’s men got through both games without losing.
There may be an answer for that though – neither England nor Argentina have the backs to punish opposing teams, and the critic who said that the recent Bok/Pumas game was like watching a poor Bok team playing a Bok B team that raised its game was onto something.
It was dreadful, and the acerbic comments that were directed at the Boks from the SuperSport in-studio experts were justified. Meyer’s game does depend on forward domination, and without it, the team looks clueless.
At least though the combinations for this game look a bit improved on what we saw in Mendoza. Duane Vermeulen may not be fully fit and in that sense his selection is a gamble, as is that of young Johan Goosen on the bench, but he does have the ability to turn bad ball into good ball. More importantly, his appearance at No 8 makes it possible for Willem Alberts to return to blindside flank, where he looks most comfortable.
If the Boks are going to play Meyer’s game, the selection of Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf is also about five games overdue. Meyer has said all along he wants someone in the Fourie du Preez mould, and while it is folly to even think that there may be someone who can compare to the man long rated as the world’s finest No 9, Pienaar is far closer to Du Preez in playing style than Francois Hougaard is.
But when we discuss Pienaar’s chances of imposing himself with his kicking game we return to the unavoidable initial point – for that to happen this is going to have to be a day where Beast Mtawarira rediscovers his old form, where Andries Strauss makes the step up to international rugby and claims the hooker berth as his own, and Juandre Kruger takes ownership of the important No 5 lock duties in a way that Andries Bekker and himself between them have failed to do up to now.
If those things happen, the Boks will have a chance, and it also doesn’t really bear repeating that Morne Steyn becomes a non-entity on a day when he doesn’t have a solid platform to play off. If the big men don’t bely their inexperience to make the necessary statement, a Bok defensive system that has regressed significantly since last year is going to be under severe pressure and the last chance to turn the season around will have disappeared.
Australia: Kurtley Beale, Dom Shipperly, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia (capt), Radike Samo, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis, Nathan Sharpe, Sitaleki Timani, Ben Alexander, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson. Replacements: Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper, Scott Higginbotham, Liam Gill, Nick Phipps, Mike Harris, Anthony Fainga’a.
South Africa: Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers (capt), Frans Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Tiaan Liebenberg, Pat Cilliers, Flip van der Merwe, Francois Louw, Johan Goosen, Patrick Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo.
Kick-off: 12:30 SA time.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Prediction: Wallabies to win by 5 to 12.