SPIRO: The Wallabies face a huge test against the All Bull Springboks
Wallabies player Digby Ioane crosses over to score a try during the Rugby Union International between Australia and Argentina at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
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When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
That familiar and true sporting adage sums up the task facing the Wallabies as they embark on their difficult last two Tests in the 2012 Rugby Championship.
On Saturday night they play an embattled Springboks side at Loftus Versfeld Stadium at Pretoria and then a week later they face a passionate Pumas side at Rosario.
This, aside from playing at Eden Park in New Zealand against the All Blacks, is about as hard a rugby assignment as you can face.
Pretoria is the heartland of the Afrikaaner rugby ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality. Visiting teams are often pelted with fruit.
The venue is not for the faint-hearted, either the visiting players or the referee.
And this brings us to another difficulty facing the Wallabies. The referee is Alain Rolland, the Irishman who has a penchant for rewarding the brutal, attritional, forward-power, kicking game of the Springboks with penalties.
Rolland refereed the Springboks v England Rugby World Cup 2007 final which was won on Percy Montgomery’s accurate kicking boot. In that game Rolland refereed in a way that favoured the kicking-tackling side.
If he does this at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, it could be a hard match for the Wallabies to win.
The point here is that the laws state, and this has been re-emphasised since the bleak, dour penalty-obsessed play of the Rugby World Cup 2007, that the tackler must immediately release the tackled player so that the ball can be placed immediately.
Then before the ruck is formed, the tackler or a second digger can have a go at turning over the ball.
The northern hemisphere referees tend to favour the tackling teams in their judgment calls about whether the ball has been immediately played. This tendency plays into the hands of kicking teams.
And one of the features of the inaugural The Rugby Championship has been the high count of penalties given, many of them against the side with the ball.
And a consequence of this is that there has not been a single match where a side has scored a bonus point for notching up four tries.
Of the 12 Rugby Championship Tests this season, seven will be refereed by northern hemisphere referees and five will be refereed by southern hemisphere referees. The logic here is that the IRB has a panel of its top referees and these referees are going to be used in Tests around the world, and not just in their own jurisdictions.
The problem with this is that there is a preponderance of northern hemisphere referees in the top list. In my opinion, a number of these supposedly top referees are anything but the best in the world.
Just to name a few names, Nigel Owens, Alain Rolland, Wayne Barnes and George Clancy do not impress as being of world class standard.
These referees, unfortunately, have given away far too many penalties and often for the wrong reasons. The Rugby Championship is averaging 21.6 penalties a match. This exceeds the Six Nations average even of 19.6.
It was ludicrous, for instance, that the All Blacks v South African Test at Dunedin saw Clancy give 25 penalties, 19 of them at the ruck.
The referee for the Test at Pretoria is the Irishman, Rolland. He can be extremely pedantic. In one Test in South Africa several years ago, for instance, he penalised the All Blacks twice for crooked feeds to the scrum, despite the fact that their scrum was shoving the Springboks around.
Fourie du Preez, the great Springboks halfback (their best in the professional era), was feeding into his own second-row as halfbacks generally do.
The Springboks total game plan is to put pressure on the rucks, drive from the lineouts and kick bombs to force penalties to goal from. This week I was sent an email from a disgruntled Springboks supporter with these words on it: The Boks Game Plan Is ALL BULL.
Having a referee who officiates for penalties, for this All Bull game, is a big plus for the Springboks, in my opinion.
The Wallabies go into the Test and, indeed, the entire road trip with a seriously depleted squad.
John O’Neill has been criticised for pointing out how many Wallabies are out injured. But he is right. And the additional point to make here is that unlike, say, New Zealand and South Africa, there is not the depth of players to cover when the stars are injured.
There are three captains out, for instance: James Horwill, David Pocock and Will Genia. James O’Connor, Quade Cooper and Drew Mitchell are out. These are all starters, or should be starters.
There has been a lot of talk about Cooper since he came back from injury. He played poorly against the Pumas, admittedly.
But I think the more mature (in his play and not in his off-field comments) Cooper on the field is an ideal number 10 for the Wallabies. His passing game is what distinguishes him from his peers.
If this passing game can be harnessed, the Wallabies have the potential to be a potent attacking side.
But this is a matter for the end of season European tour, or next year providing Cooper is still playing rugby union.
Deans has tended to end the Tests playing two fliers, Michael Hooper and Liam Gill, as loose forwards. I think for Pretoria he needs to put as big a pack as he can on the field and and on the reserves bench.
This means, I would argue, starting with Sitaleki Timani and Nathan Sharpe in the second row. And bringing on Kane Douglas, who was most impressive against the Pumas, when the opportune moment comes. And leaving Hooper to handle the flier job by himself, something which he is perfectly capable of doing.
Hooper should be a starter, despite or because of the fact that he will be smaller and faster than any other forward on the field. A Zavos adage is this: the pace of the forwards is the pace of the fastest forward and the pace of the backs is the pace of the slowest back.
The All Bull falls down on both counts, which explains, I reckon, why they are struggling. Heyneke Meyer, the Springboks coach, seems to be infatuated with the Bismarckian principle that ‘might is right.’
He has the flier Heinrich Brussow available (and his injury was the key event in the Wallabies victory over the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup 2011 quarter-final), but refuses to use him.
This is rugby madness. Brussow would best the first forward I’d pick for the Springboks pack. Thank goodness for Meyer’s block-headed dedication to the All Bulls game which requires big men throughout the pack.
The other factor that is difficult for the Wallabies is that they have played 16 Tests at altitude in South Africa against the Springboks in over 80 years. And they have won just three.
The last victory, two years ago, at Blomfontein, with Kurtley Beale’s last-second, long range penalty, was the first Wallaby victory against the Springboks at altitude for 47 years!
Richard Loe rather famously, or infamously, predicted that the Wallabies would win only one Test in the 2012 Rugby Championship. Wrong.
They have won two, with home victories over the Springboks and the Pumas. This compares with the Springboks who have won one (against the Pumas) and drawn one (the Pumas also).
With all the team having played four Tests, Zealand have 16 tournament points (from four wins) and a points differential of + 56. Australia have 8 tournament points (two wins) and a PD -19. South Africa have 7 tournament points and a PD + 4. Argentina have 3 tournament points and a PD -41.
Only the Wallabies have a chance (and it is an outside chance with 100 – 1 odds) of taking the tournament from the All Blacks. But a win at Pretoria will go a long win to finishing second in the tournament in which case it would a matter of ‘eat your heart out, Richard Loe.’
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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