Springboks power is a poser for the Wallabies
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South Africa's Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Heinrich Broussow. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville
There is a temptation – understandable given geography and time zones – to give a little less weight to South Africa in our weekly discussions.
The recent string of successes of the Wallabies against the Springboks encourages such thinking: there is nothing to unduly fret about there.
Besides, for Australians, the more urgent menace is always presumed to be wearing black.
But it is an attitude that can allow tasty statistics to slip under the radar and here is one: in the six games played between the top three teams, on current standings, in the Australian and South African conference, the South Africans are up on the scoreboard by a resounding 6-0.
Jake White’s assertion on South African radio last week that the Australian conference was the weakest ruffled a few feathers, but he can certainly point to the results. Australian sides are failing to get the job done.
The narrow margins of victory in most of those games – apart from the Bulls’ destruction of the Reds in Pretoria – caution against making definitive judgments, but we can safely say that the departure of a raft of Springboks veterans following the Rugby World Cup has not diminished their physicality.
At stages in the testosterone-laden Highlanders v Bulls match last week the football almost seemed incidental among the displays of chest beating.
Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield have left but the South Africans still have plenty who would walk into the Wallabies pack and an emerging crop of youngsters not far behind. Eben Etzebeth, Rynhardt Elstadt, Coenie Oosthuizen and Marcel Coetzee are among the names that will grow increasingly familiar with in the coming years.
Yet again the Stormers turned to Etzebeth to grind through the hard metres against a big Waratahs pack on Saturday. Of them all, he and the Sharks’ workaholic blindside Coetzee look to be the pick of the bunch. Perhaps Dan Vickerman should immediately be dispatched to South Africa with the mission of persuading at least one of them that happy futures lie in Australia. There is the hint of something special about Etzebeth.
Of course, an infamous World Cup quarter-final in Wellington is never far the mind when pondering the balance of power between the two nations.
Without wanting to cover old territory, especially on the refereeing, there is a still a point or two to be made on the encounter.
First, South Africans must daily rue the injury picked up by Frans Steyn late in the preceding game, a highly physical encounter against Samoa. Steyn, who can look disinterested and magnificent in the same game, was staking a decent claim to being the form No.12 in the tournament before injury scrubbed him from the team list to face Australia. The absence of his booming boot and physical presence was as costly as Heinrich Brussow’s early departure.
Steyn is scheduled to make a return to the Springboks this year, where he might take his place in midfield alongside Jean de Villiers – regarded as a decent chance to assume the captaincy.
Second, the Wallabies lineout imploded, the scrum went backwards and the collisions shaded by John Smit’s combatants. The Springboks sent a B-team to Australia in the Tri Nations and were underdone in return leg and believe the quarter-final was a more accurate reflection of the forwards’ quality.
Yet there are doubts. New Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer – who is importing the Bulls’ coaching back-room staff, and presumably much of their strategy – is tipped to continue with Morne Steyn at No.10 but the suggestion does not set the pulse racing. For all their possession and territory against the Wallabies in New Zealand they lacked the craft to overcome a committed scrambling defensive effort.
Australia is tying itself up in knots about whether James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale or Quade Cooper should play at five-eighth. South Africa must view such deliberations as a sign of a nation flaunting its wealth.
Another path would be to insert Pat Lambie into the playmaker’s position, but a lack of a world-class No.15 complicates the move.
Similarly, while Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen are excellent wingers they do not promote a sense of panic in opposition hearts.
Sadly, injury has taken the Johan Goosen option off the table, for now at least. The Cheetahs No.10 brings with him the promise of a new dimension in South African back play, a fluency to supplement their power. The blunt-instrument approach has only taken them so far.
England will begin the Heyneke era on the same weekend as the Wallabies’ first Test against Wales. There are more reasons than usual to keep an eye on the Springboks’ progress.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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