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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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South Africa approach judgement day
Stephen Nell
October 3, 2011
South African centre Jean de Villiers runs with the ball during Pool D match against Wales, Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand, September 11, 2011
Springbok centre Jean de Villiers in action against Wales. He will be seen as the perfect replacement for Frans Steyn against Australia © Getty Images
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Seldom has there been so much riding on one match for Springbok rugby and some of the individuals involved as Sunday's quarter-final against Australia in Wellington.

For the Springboks it will be season-defining. They decided some time ago that the Tri-Nations would not be their tournament this year as they opted to rest key players in order to condition them to peak at the World Cup.

As a result South Africa were undercooked when they lost to Australia in Durban. They got up to beat a second string New Zealand side in Port Elizabeth and have subsequently hit their stride at the World Cup following a narrow escape against Wales.

It remains difficult to judge exactly where they are based on performances in Pool D, but it should be noted that some of the key performance areas have been good. South Africa have thus far done well at set-piece, defended superbly, been extremely disciplined and have kicked well.

The performance against Wales should be viewed in perspective. South Africa have a winning habit against the Welsh and have only ever lost to them in 1999. This year's Welsh side is arguably the best one they have subsequently come up against.

Secondly, South Africa weathered a Welsh onslaught and when they were in trouble at 10-16 down took the ball through a number of phases before Francois Hougaard landed the decisive blow.

Even so, Wales even had their opportunities to win in the closing stages, but did not have the temperament. Perhaps all the years of struggling against South Africa had instilled an inferiority complex.

South Africa's most clinical performance came against Fiji. They demolished the islanders 49-3, but this Fijian side is nothing to get excited about.

After that a routine 87-0 victory against Namibia followed before a struggle against Samoa that resulted in a 13-5 victory. There are romantic notions about how the islanders play the game, but Samoa's tactics were downright violent and it was outrageous to hear them complaining about referee Nigel Owens in the aftermath. It was as tricky a pool match as the Boks could face and all that matters is that they came through it with a victory.

 
"Perhaps the Wallabies will be considered favourites based on them being Tri-Nations champions, but pause for a moment and consider this a World Cup rather than an annual tournament."
 

There have been numerous star performers. They include props Jannie du Plessis, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Beast Mtawarira, reserve hooker Bismarck du Plessis, lock Danie Rossouw, flankers Heinrich Brüssow and Schalk Burger, flyhalf Morné Steyn, centre Jaque Fourie, wing JP Pietersen and fullback Patrick Lambie.

South Africa have nevertheless lost a trump card in inside centre Frans Steyn. While he executed his fundamental duties as well as one could expect from a No 12, his massive boot again proved to be a factor. Now that he's out of the tournament with a shoulder injury, the Boks have lost the ability to punish the opposition for a penalty conceded from up to 60-odd metres out.

However, Jean de Villiers is as good a replacement as one could hope for now that he has recovered from the rib injury that he sustained against Wales. Lambie, who is the baby in the side, has also proved that he has the temperament to succeed at international level. Now it's all or nothing against Australia and whoever loses the match will consider their World Cup a failure.

Perhaps the Wallabies will be considered favourites based on them being Tri-Nations champions, but pause for a moment and consider this a World Cup rather than an annual tournament.

There is so much riding on it that teams may well be a lot more inhibited in the knockout phase. Consider South Africa's strengths and that the weather in Wellington is bloody awful. Australia probably deserve to be favourites having beaten South Africa in seven of their last 11 matches, but a Bok side with a strong set-piece and accurate kicker in Morné Steyn must at least be considered as being in with a reasonable chance.

It also appears that the technical expertise of Rassie Erasmus and the defensive coaching of Jacques Nienaber has yielded the desired results. The Bok defence is much better than in 2010 and they scramble particularly well. They only conceded two tries in their pool matches.

The Boks therefore appear to have the game plan for the challenge and experienced personnel who know how to win. There is so much riding on this game. If South Africa lose, it will be a last one in a Springbok jersey for at least John Smit, Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw.

Smit's detractors have argued that he should have called it quits after the Tri-Nations in 2009, but he remains central to coach Peter de Villiers's master plan.

As for a coach who has been ridiculed so much in the international media, there is the prospect of a last laugh before he rides into the sunset. De Villiers has communicated his vision particularly well at the World Cup and thus far not courted any controversy. He is measured in his comments and South Africa appear to be winning the public relations battle.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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