Adapting to referee the Bok key...
The Wallabies are a far better side than their 2013 season results say, and there is no doubt they will present a massive challenge to the Springboks when the two teams meet in their Castle Lager Rugby Championship match in Brisbane on Saturday.
The Boks have been gushing over their opposition for a few days now, being careful not to step in one of the ever-present traps of the local media and have gone out of their way to praise the Wallaby pack ahead of Saturday’s encounter in Brisbane.
But while the obvious reasons are there why they certainly don’t want to provide an under-fire Wallaby team with any unnecessary motivation, it is also because the Boks have been in a position more than once that they have found themselves on the wrong side of a breakdown battle with the Wallabies, and they certainly know what to expect this weekend.
It would be daft to expect any half-decent coaching team to ignore the Boks’ vulnerability at the breakdown, especially against teams like Scotland and Argentina this year. By slowing down the ball and getting away with more at the breakdown than they should have, both sides managed to disrupt the Bok pattern and the backline didn't have a decent launching pad to attack from.
The outcome was patchy results in both games, even though the Boks had regrouped by halftime and responded with a different intent in the last 40 minutes.
Add to that the lingering memory of the World Cup quarterfinal in 2011, where referee Bryce Lawrence allowed David Pocock the freedom of the park to do as he pleased and it is clear why the Boks simply need to take control of this aspect when it comes to Saturday’s game.
The team that wins the breakdown battle will ultimately come out on top, and even though – as former All Black coach John Mitchell pointed out last week – the Boks tend to concentrate on removing the threats rather than protecting their ball, there needs to be a different way of looking at the most important part of the game.
With George Clancy taking charge of the Bok game on Saturday and both teams talking up the breakdown battle, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see some heated competition there. But the Boks know one thing – despite all the talk – they need to make sure they adapt to the referee. That could be the ultimate key to winning the test.
Bok assistant coach Johan van Graan admitted as much, adding that the breakdown will determine Saturday’s winner.
“Whoever referees the game, we have to adapt,” Van Graan said.
“We’ve got George Clancy again, and he reffed us well in Dunedin and in Murrayfield last year. He is one of the world’s best.
“Both sides have to adapt to the referee on Saturday. We try and adapt during the first half, and reassess at halftime. In the two tests (against Scotland in Nelspruit and Argentina in Mendoza) we struggled in the first 40 minutes, but we closed that gap and adapted well after halftime and adapted well.
“Both teams have to adapt, but that is why you have coaches and world class players. I’m sure our guys will adapt again this weekend and the Australian players will do the same. We will get tested and the breakdown is a big focus in world rugby at the moment, mainly because it is where the most action happens all the time.
“If you think there are between 120-180 rucks per game, it’s massive. That’s 60-90 rucks per team. You’ve got to win your ball for a large portion of the time, you’ve got to slow down the opposition ball and hopefully get a few turnovers.
“You have certain players in both sides who will test the referee and it is about adapting to what he allows on the ground. What happened in previous games doesn’t matter, all that matters is Saturday night. Whatever the referee allows, we have to adapt to.”
But Van Graan praised the Wallabies despite the fact they have won only one from five tests in this international season. With a new coach, there is a feeling of vulnerability among their local media, but the Boks are wary of falling into this trap.
“First I want to give credit to the Australians; they have adapted their game in the last year. It’s not only Michael Hooper that steals balls, the whole team tries, and every breakdown is a contest against them.
“Guys like Stephen Moore, Scott Fardy and Adam Ashley-Cooper are some of the best stealers in the game. If you look at the Lions tests and the All Black tests, every breakdown is a contest nowadays. It was just like we saw in our first five tests in 2013.
“In test match rugby you can’t get away with an easy breakdown. Obviously we focus on our ball carriers and cleaners. Perhaps our reaction time wasn’t good enough in Mendoza, but we’ve corrected it at halftime and reacted well.
“That’s long gone now. It’s a new game on Saturday night and I can guarantee the breakdown will have a huge influence on both teams.”
With the Boks' history of being on the wrong side of these contests against the Wallabies and the odds stacked against them at an unfriendly venue, they will need to get the breakdown right if they are to have any chance of winning the game.