Springboks offer Wallabies a chance for redemption
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With the international rugby season having started in less than ideal fashion with Sunday’s 32-23 loss to Samoa, the Wallabies and we cautiously faithful in gold are officially on the road to the Rugby World Cup.
With a bit of luck, planets suitably aligned, and a well-performing Australian team, the journey won’t end until ‘Bill’ is launched toward the dark Auckland sky on October 23.
But we’re a long way from that just yet. A soberingly long way, we’ve now found out.
Samoa showed the Wallabies that there will be no such thing as an easy game in 2011, and their historic win came on the back of a brutal lesson in breakdown physicality and all-round enthusiasm.
Though their discipline at times earned the wrath of referee Marius Jonker, the Samoans were never punished on the scoreboard by a generous Wallaby outfit. A runaway try from mountainous winger Alesana Tuilagi and a clever charge-down try to fullback Paul Williams had the Samoans racing away to an early lead midway through the first half.
And from that point, all they really had to do was hang on for a thoroughly deserving and well-celebrated win. I expect a new MasterCard ad this week in celebration.
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing of course, and Robbie Deans’ decision to field an experimental side fired debate among Wallaby supporters within minutes of fulltime.
And so redemption must start this Saturday, with the second Sydney leg doubling as the first match of the 2011 Tri-Nations. Like plenty of others, this trophy hasn’t called Australia home in many a year, though that didn’t stop Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill declaring the Wallabies are chasing the treble: the Tri-Nations, Bill, and Lord Bledisloe.
I guess you have to have goals, but I wonder if they might be kept on ice for a few weeks now.
Always-entertaining Springboks coach Peter de Villiers has evidently stumbled across Jake White’s 2007 Rugby World Cup playbook and named an initial touring party minus 21 of the Republic’s best.
What’s more, he couldn’t care less how much noise Australia makes about the seriousness of injuries, declaring, “Whatever anyone says out there about being unhappy, I don’t have a problem.”
But those wily South Africans are playing with us again. Just as we in Australia finished celebrating the Reds’ Super Rugby triumph and absorbed the news of the Wallabies five million dollar Rugby World Cup pot late last week, the ‘Boks quietly added some reinforcements to their rookie squad for the journey east.
Prop CJ van der Linde was added initially, but then so too were lock Johan Muller and Waratah-destroying flanker Heinrich Brüssow. If they keep adding quality players at this rate, Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield should arrive at the ground just before kick-off.
That all said, this Springbok squad definitely can’t be taken lightly. It’s easy for us to talk about them being a second or third XV, but the fact remains that South Africa are resting or “injury managing” their stars because they can. Oh, for the day Australia can leave 21 first choice players at home like the ‘Boks have.
South Africa names their side later today, and though youthful and lacking international experience, their squad still oozes talent that will push the Wallabies all the way.
Just in the halves, the experienced pairing of Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn will be ably deputised by exciting Sharks scrumhalf Charl McLeod and young punk flyhalves Patrick Lambie and Elton Jantjies.
Out wide, even without the Habanas and Pietersens of the world, there’s still plenty of speed to burn with Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, and Odwa Ndungane vying for back three spots with Lwazi Mvovo and Bulls flyer Bjorn Basson.
In the forwards, there’s still plenty to worry about too. Ryan Kankowski is up there with the very best running no. 8s in the game, and Brüssow certainly needs no introduction to Sydney crowds.
Van der Linde and Chiliboy Ralepelle will be a tough prospect in the front row, and perhaps the only variable might be whether skipper John Smit – playing in Australia for the last time with the Springboks – packs down at hooker or tighthead.
Of course, when a South African side still contains prodigious superboot Morne Steyn and quality locks in Muller and Danie Rossouw, it’s not difficult to imagine a likely game plan. But then knowing it is one thing, stopping or adjusting to it is entirely something else again.
And if we’re honest, any crying over spilt milk and injured tourists quickly stopped the moment Sunday’s experimental Wallabies lost to Samoa. It’s fair to expect that the First XV, or as close as can be assembled to it, will be trotted out today.
Certainly, the big attacking guns, Genia, Cooper, O’Connor, and Beale will be back in some shape or form. David Pocock surely won’t be running the water again, and Scott Higginbotham could well have done enough to earn a run in the starting pack somewhere. James Horwill has to come back in for his first Test in 18 months or more.
Some big Samoan shoulders, and Matt Giteau’s preference to track east-west rather than north-south hindered Pat McCabe, but for mine he showed enough of his straight running to think he might be worth persevering with. That said, with Adam Ashley-Cooper continuing his off year form-wise, McCabe might need to shuffle one spot wider to hold his place.
Generally speaking, the Wallabies will need a massive dose of enthusiasm, commitment, and respect for their opposition.
The Tri-Nations is always a special time in the rugby year, and even with the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon, this year’s edition will still provide plenty of motivation for the three proud nations.
Of course, it’s nice to hold the Mandela Plate currently, and a win this weekend would ensure it stays put in the St. Leonards trophy cabinet. But the Tri-Nations trophy spot has been gathering dust since 2001, and it’s a situation that’s long needed rectifying.
2011 is as good a time as any, and it must start this Saturday night.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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