Wallabies eye wounded Springboks
July 22, 2010
Springboks captain John Smit and coach Peter de Villiers' plot their team's revival during a training session in Brisbane © Getty Images
Australia enter the Tri-Nations fray this weekend in a vital showdown against South Africa in Brisbane, with the defending champions facing a hat-trick of defeats just a year after dominating their southern hemisphere rivals.
It has been a troubled few weeks for the Springboks, who limp into round three reeling from back-to-back defeats at the hands of New Zealand and stripped of the services of lock Bakkies Botha and wing Jean de Villiers through suspension. The team's worrying habit of hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons was again not helped by coach Peter De Villiers, who sparked further controversy earlier this week by suggesting the All Blacks' victories in Auckland and Wellington had been orchestrated by officials.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, have been happy to go about their preparations in the shadow of their rivals, with the Suncorp Stadium set to play host to their first outing since battling past Ireland at the same venue last month. That patchy victory brought the curtain down on a mixed warm-up campaign, including a first home defeat to England in seven years, which had threatened to derail their season before it had begun.
Any hopes the Springboks may have of returning to winning ways before heading back home will be tempered by the fact that they are yet to taste victory at Suncorp Stadium, or its predecessor, Lang Park, in six previous attempts. And the wounds from their 49-0 mauling in 2006 and the 21-6 defeat last year remain fresh as they look to redress the balance.
While the Wallabies will no doubt relish the opportunity to heap woe on the Boks, the visitors' No.1 priority will be to ensure an even-numbered contest. Danie Rossouw's somewhat debateable indiscretion at the Westpac Stadium last time out saw the Springboks reduced to 14-men again, a week after Botha had seen yellow for a ruck infringement having already headbutted Jimmy Cowan. The timing of both incidents could not have been worse, with the games in their infancy. That numerical advantage was hammered home by the All Blacks who subsequently strangled the life out of their rivals by forcing them to play catch-up rugby.
If the Boks are to arrest their slide they will have to solve their disciplinary woes while also rediscovering the cutting edge that powered them to glory last year. On recent evidence, it also appears that a gruelling schedule over the last year or so has taken its toll on De Villiers' players, who look in desperate need of break. That apparent fatigue has also manifested itself in a drop-off in physicality with the All Blacks holding the power-packed Boks at arm's length.
A desire for more aggression, or 'mongrel' as it is colloquially termed, was also high on the list of priorities for the Wallabies, having been largely bullied by England in their two-Test series. Injuries robbed coach Robbie Deans of some key personnel last month, leaving his side looking vulnerable, and although those woes have eased a little, the Wallabies' boss is still restricted by a lack of options. His side remain under pressure to prove they have the power to compliment their flair. The concerns over a lack of depth up front have been allayed somewhat with the return of loose-head prop Benn Robinson and lock Nathan Sharpe, the duo having recovered from a broken arm and a back strain respectively. Another returning star - hooker Stephen Moore - has been held back on the bench with Reds youngster Saia Faingaa handed the No.2 shirt.
There is more good news for the hosts with a return to action for livewire scrum-half Will Genia, who has been sidelined with a broken hand. He will once again partner his Reds team-mate Quade Cooper, who will bring his undoubted talents to the Tri-Nations stage for the first time. In a surprise switch, Adam Ashley-Cooper and James O'Connor swap positions in the back three, with the versatile Ashley-Cooper reverting to fullback and O'Connor shifting to the unfamiliar wing position. Unsurprisingly, play-maker Matt Giteau retains his spot in the centre and also the kicking duties despite some question marks over his form with boot and ball.
In a bid to stop the rot, De Villiers has opted to ring the changes for the game with four changes to his starting line-up and another five new faces called up to the bench. The in-form Ruan Pienaar usurps the under-fire Ricky Januarie at scrum-half with wing Gio Aplon promoted to fill the void left by the suspended De Villiers on the wing. BJ Botha starts ahead of CJ van der Linde at tight-head while Ryan Kankowski, primarily a No.8, replaces Stormers youngster Francois Louw on the flank. The exciting rising star that is winger/scrum-half Francois Hougaard offers a formidable attacking option on the bench where he joins back-row forward Dewald Potgieter, lock Flip van der Merwe and centre Juan de Jongh.
In another bizarre sound-bite earlier this week, De Villiers talked up the Suncorp Stadium as the fastest playing surface on the Super 14 rotation and expects the game to adopt a high-tempo. But as ever that depends on the outcome of the forward battle and the attacking intent of both sides. The breakdown has been a contentious issue of late and the Springboks may be best served by resolving their differences with the officials before promising an expansive approach.
It may be a bit early in the competition and a little harsh on the Wallabies to be talking about also-rans, but that is the scenario facing both sides unless they manage to conjure the kind of performances that have propelled the All Blacks to a new level in recent weeks.
Australia: A Ashley Cooper (Brumbies); J O'Connor (Western Force), R Horne (NSW Waratahs), M Giteau (Brumbies), D Mitchell (NSW Waratahs); Q Cooper (Reds), W Genia (Reds); B Robinson (NSW Waratahs), S Faingaa (Reds), S Ma'afu (Brumbies), D Mumm (NSW Waratahs), N Sharpe (Western Force), R Elsom (Brumbies, capt), D Pocock (Western Force), R Brown (Western Force)
Replacements: S Moore (Brumbies), J Slipper (Reds), R Simmons (Reds), B McCalman(Western Force), L Burgess (NSW Waratahs), B Barnes (NSW Waratahs), K Beale (NSW Waratahs)
South Africa: Z Kirchner (Bulls); G Aplon (Stormers), J Fourie (Stormers), W Olivier (Bulls), B Habana (Stormers); M Steyn (Bulls), R Pienaar (Sharks); G Steenkamp (Bulls), J Smit (Sharks, capt), BJ Botha (Ulster), D Rossouw (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), S Burger (Stormers), R Kankowski (Sharks), P Spies (Bulls)
Replacements: C Ralepelle (Bulls), CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs), F van der Merwe (Bulls), D Potgieter (Bulls), F Hougaard (Bulls), B James (Bath), J de Jongh (Stormers)
Referee: George Clancy (Ire)
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.