Springboks’ battle will be at the breakdown

2011-08-13 00:00

SOUTH Africans will be holding their breath when the Springboks take on the Wallabies in this evening’s Tri-Nations international at King’s Park.

The Springboks, apart from John Smit and Danie Rossouw, have been in cotton wool since the end of the Super Rugby competition and have not seen action in nearly two months. But the country’s rugby supporters, and indeed the coaching staff, need a boost with the World Cup in New Zealand now just two Test matches away, and they are looking to familiar old faces to provide it.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’s tenure started after the 2007 RWC triumph and from the start he has banked on experience and opted for the tried and tested in place of emerging youth. And so we are back with a dozen players who were in France in 2007 and hoping to repeat the magic of Paris in the weeks ahead.

While we know what to expect from the Wallabies — a well-drilled outfit, playing an expansive, high-intensity game and ruthless in attacking from broken play — there are a range of questions which need to be answered by these Springboks.

Do these Springboks, who have been together for five or six years, still have the intense desire and hunger to perform at the very highest level on the world stage?

And after their seven-week sabbatical and fortnight camp in Rustenburg, do they have the hard, sharp, competitive edge necessary to win a tough international against battle-hardened troops? Do they have the match fitness to play 80 minutes of rugby in the rarefied atmosphere of a Test match?

De Villiers admitted there would be a lack of synergy among players who have been out of the game for months rather than weeks, but said he expects the cohesion to return after “15 to 20 minutes”.

Captain John Smit is hoping that the massive experience in the squad will help them overcome the rustiness.

“It is a strong team, one of the best we have been able to pick for a while,” Smit told the media yesterday, adding that it was a boost having familiar faces around him again.

“It’s been fantastic that I have been able to delegate. We have created an amazing understanding amongst five or six of the guys, in terms of their responsibilities on the field,” he added.

“I hope things will click on Saturday as they have for the last five or six years.”

Smit is also looking for a quicker start than the one anticipated by his coach.

“Things can happen pretty quickly in the Tri-Nations. You can’t afford too much time to settle in,” he added.

“I was asked [whether the Boks were ready] two years ago before the British and Irish Lions series. Time will tell, but the first 20 minutes [today] will be important.”

We will also know by this evening what impact technical adviser Rassie Erasmus has had on the squad.

Erasmus, who stayed with the senior players in Rustenburg during the Tri-Nations tour, has spent more time with the senior players than De Villiers and one hopes that there are signs that the Springboks, both tactically and technically, have made advances.

The key to beating the Wallabies, as the All Blacks highlighted in victory last Saturday, is defence and placing halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper under pressure. In contrast, the Boks lost heavily in Sydney because they failed to close down the dangerous, counter-attacking Wallaby runners quickly and effectively.

The Boks have brought in defence specialist Jacques Nienaber and he will surely have emphasised the importance of stopping the Wallabies on the other side of the advantage line.

And, of course, defence will be far easier if the Wallabies are denied space to attack by a strong, advancing Bok pack and an accurate kicking game.

The battle will, as usual, be at its most fierce at the breakdown where the Wallabies will be well-served by fetcher David Pocock and the bustling Scott Higginbotham.

Springbok flank Heinrich Brüssow, on the strength of 25 minutes’ Currie Cup rugby in months and in the company of a retreaded lock (Danie Rossouw) and a number eight (Pierre Spies) battling with form and fitness, will have his hands full.

What is in the Boks’ favour is that they are at home, they have rich experience spread throughout the team and the Australians have had to slog all the way from New Zealand this week to play the Test.

It is unlikely to be enough. Certainly, if the underdone Boks can overturn the number two Test side in the world after a lengthy break and with no match practice, it will a most notable victory and a most timely boost ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

But what is far more likely is that a slicker, fitter, match-hardened Australian unit will take advantage as the Springboks run out of puff and lose their structure and defensive shape.

TEAMS

Springboks — 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Butch James, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Danie Rossouw, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Beast Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Gurthro Steenkamp, 18 Gerhard Mostert, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Morne Steyn, 22 Gio Aplon.

Wallabies — 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 James O’Connor, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (c), 5 James Horwill, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu.

Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Salesi Ma’afu, 18 Sitaleki Timani, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Anthony Faingaa.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence. Kick-off: 5 pm.

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