It’s been a decent break after the first two rounds of the Rugby Championships – and what a first two rounds it was! Australia managed to hold New Zealand to a draw in the opening encounter, only to be humiliated in the return match at Eden Park.
South Africa faced a challenging test in the torrential rain on Pretoria to hold Argentina at bay and were manhandled in the hot weather at the Padre Ernesto Martearena Stadium, but managed to sneak a win in the 78th minute.
The All Blacks have again set the standard of how the No.1 team is meant to perform, even though there are still rumblings of their aura being weakened in the past year. The demi-god display of rugby against Australia may have softened the opinions of many, but the Rugby Championships are only a third done. It is possible that by the end of the competition, the talk of New Zealand’s supposed decline may stop and the focus will switch to the 2015 World Cup.
This coming weekend will see a vengeful Australia taking on South Africa in Perth, with the Wallabies knowing that the Springboks are limping without some key players, as well as their once mighty set pieces being a target to attack.
South Africa’s scrums were proven to be vulnerable against Argentina, and even though there were some dark arts in the front-row, the Pumas put immense pressure on the Springbok trio and caused Jannie Du Plessis to reassess his technique and presence. Argentina exposed the fact that South Africa don’t have depth or a specialist tight-head prop and I’m sure that Ewen McKenzie, an old front-rower himself, would be licking his lips at this weakness.
Don’t be surprised if the Wallabies attempt the same tactic that Argentina did and pressure the tight-head channel. At the moment, South Africa don’t have an answer to the power and muscle shown by the Pumas. Even though Jannie Du Plessis is the culprit, the scrum is meant to work as a solid, single unit so the blame is to be spread around the pack. The locking pair behind the front row needs to work extra hard to keep the props straight, and with Victor Matfield’s return, I’m sure that more than a few honest words will be said during practice to rectify the problem.
Australia will look to capitalise on the well-documented problems in the Springbok camp. this. The Wallabies have named a strong back-line, with Bernard Foley being promoted to the starting XV in place of Kurtley Beale, who is shifted to the bench. The back-line as a whole is one of the strongest that Australia can produce, with Nick Phipps and Tevita Kuridrani also promoted; Adam Ashley-Cooper reverts to the wing for the injured Pat McCabe. But they were shredded against the All Blacks just under a fortnight ago, so a number of things need to be sorted out before their next outing.
Israel Folau is always a danger, but his last outing was below par against the All Blacks. It could have been an off day but I still wouldn’t underestimate his potential to beat defenders, so South Africa will have their hands full. Folau should be able to dominate the game from the back as the Springboks tend to kick more often than not. Even though the All Blacks do the same, the difference is purpose and hunger. The Springboks seem to lack the purpose of chasing the ball and the hunger to compete for it compared to the passionate All Blacks. This lack of passion from the Boks will allow Folau to get some space and stretch his legs.
The problems for the Wallabies could occur up front with some injury-enforced changes. The Wallabies are down to their fourth- and fifth-string hookers, with injuries forcing Stephen Moore, Nathan Charles and Tatafu Polota-Nau onto the sidelines. This will cause a few nervous moments but James Hanson has been there or thereabouts in the Wallabies’ squad, even though he only has two caps to his name. Veteran Saia Faingaa comes into the side on the bench.
The experienced campaigner, Bismarck Du Plessis, might look at this as an opportunity to gain some lost respect and will to push Hanson to the limit. Even if Du Plessis doesn’t start, which is the general consensus, the capable and hardened Adriaan Strauss will step up and might offer Hanson a stronger challenge. Either way, the Springbok hookers are some of the best in the world and difficult to compete against.
The arm-wrestle will come in the set pieces, with the masterly Victor Matfield directing the forward ranks; he may be able to target and win a few of the Australian throws. The Wallabies’locking pair is relatively young but is gaining a reputation for consistency and ability but they are up against the veterans of Bakkies Botha and Matfield, if not the big young lads of Lood De Jager and Eben Etzebeth. The air battles and competition between the locks should be great to watch and might be the key factor in changing the momentum in the game.
Overall, the Wallabies will be looking to reverse their past results and the media hype surrounding the game suggests that they want to inflict some pain. But the Springboks want to restore some pride themselves and will be desperate to improve across the board. Both teams are looking for some vengeance and the game should be a good old slug-fest. Even though Australia has home advantage in Perth, there are still a lot of expat South Africans living in the area, so the crowd won’t be much of a concern for the visitors.
South Africa play a one-dimensional game of running the ball into contact and taking the tackle with a slow clearing of the ball, so Australia will look to defend the big men in the first channel and could create many turnover opportunities, as the Pumas did. The Springboks need to, and must, change their attacking plan to create better tryscoring opportunities and not aimlessly kick the ball downfield in hopes of a chaser putting pressure on the receiver. Folau is very capable of catching high balls and will relish the chance to do it, so the Springboks need to keep the ball in hand and look for quick ball from the bottom of the ruck and the offload pass.
The offload isn’t something that the Springboks have shown on the field recently, but it’s an option that all teams are taking and it creates attacking pressure. Australia is very capable of doing this, with the centre pairing and first receiver often taking the ball to the line and distributing it in the tackle.
Australia needs to exploit the weakened Springbok scrum and create pressure penalties to frustrate the visitors. With the runners coming through often, they must look to isolate them and force turnovers. The Wallabies just need to play a simple game of rugby to beat a team that plays with a single plan in mind. There is nothing fancy or extravagant about South Africa; even with Willie Le Roux adding the unknown, the other 14 men play simple rugby that can be easily defended. Play smart and simple rugby and Australia might get the win.
If South Africa offers nothing new to the game, Australia will win by 10 – but if South Africa for once, decide to play out of their comfort zone, then it will be a good spectacle for the fans.
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