Under pressure … the respective coaches, Robbie Deans and Heyneke Meyer, enter this encounter with critics banging at the door.
- September 7, 2012
Photo: John Selkirk
Those old enough to have grey hairs will have allowed themselves a wry grin at some of the commentary emerging from South Africa this week.
Some malcontents suggested a new playing style was required to match it with the All Blacks, and that a re-evaluation of the traditional Springboks strengths was required. It’s the sort of complaint that surfaces when the South Africans fail to crush an opponent through sheer physicality, as was the case in the draw with Argentina.
It won’t happen. There may be tweaks but South Africa’s gloriously physical style will be the same in a decade as it is now. Their under-20 side, even with the likes of outstanding prospect Jan Serfontein in the midfield, won the Junior World Championship final against New Zealand this year using four familiar bludgeons: the lineout drive, the scrum, heavy collisions and a superior kicking game. The Springboks side that takes to the field in Perth tomorrow night will not be a great one, but at least their foundations will be solid.
The respective coaches, Robbie Deans and Heyneke Meyer, enter this encounter with critics banging at the door. This is as common in coaching as selecting but Deans’s situation is evidently perilous and there is no mystery behind it.
His side, in one real sense, has been going backwards for months. The Wallabies have spent progressively less time in the opposition 22 in every game this year, starting with the Scotland debacle in June. The figure fell to about 25 per cent in first Test against Wales, had dropped to 13 per cent by the third Test of that series in Sydney and stood a touch above 10 per cent in Auckland two weeks ago.
Accordingly, tinkering with the line-ups over the past three weeks has given the appearance of charging at windmills. New men have come and gone to little effect. At least the forwards can say they were simply outgunned. The lightweights behind them have underperformed.
The prevailing winds have also been against the New Zealander all year. Australian Super Rugby sides won a miserable 24 per cent of their games against South African opposition this year. The Reds, who make up almost half of the 22 to face the Springboks, succeeded in one match from five. The only team to avoid a losing record (the Brumbies, 2-2) were coached by a South African. The school of thought – recently voiced by a former coach from the analog age – that Australia is sitting on a group of players who would conquer the world if they were not being so egregiously mismanaged interprets the situation too simply.
Yet this week’s XV at least gives the appearance of an improvement. Adam Ashley-Cooper at No.13 is a threat to the wonderful but declining Jean de Villiers and powerful but medium-paced Francois Steyn. Dom Shipperley is a desperately needed finisher because despite all his outstanding work, Digby Ioane’s strike rate is nine tries from 27 Tests.
When the Argentinians got in behind the Springboks’ defence two weeks ago, their lack of speed was palpable. Yet adventure – absent from the Wallabies this year – is first required to achieve it. The first four Argentina passes in the move that provided their try were all offloads in contact, from a counter-attacking situation. The blueprint could not be any clearer.
Problematically, South Africa have also emerged stronger from deliberations at the selection table.
The key switch is the removal of Francois Hougaard from the base of the ruck – where his clearances were substandard against Argentina – to the wing, with Ruan Pienaar taking over at No.9.
Pienaar is a confidence player but that commodity is high since playing an instrumental role in leading his Irish province, Ulster, to the Heineken Cup final.
In the pack, Andries Bekker was unrecognisably poor in Argentina, third best in every two-man collision, and makes way for the sterner Juandre Kruger. And Willem Alberts returns to his best position, at blindside, instead of Jacques Potgieter, who was repeatedly cut in half on the gainline by the low-tackling Pumas.
There should be concern about Hougaard’s role on the flank, which will undoubtedly contain a roving component. If the big Springboks ball runners start to rumble through the 10-12 channel, Hougaard’s eye for a gap and acceleration in the following phases will be a huge issue for Australia.
Both these sides are weaker than the outfits that contested the World Cup finals, but the result is no less in the balance.