The breakdown battle

2013-09-08 14:00

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How Francois Louw deals with Michael Hooper and Richie McCaw will define the Rugby Championship, writes Khanyiso Tshwaku.

Springbok flanker Francois Louw’s work at the breakdown against New Zealand and Australia could be what either makes or breaks the Springboks in their Rugby Championship away leg.

SA rugby’s two greatest rivals stand between the Boks and their first southern hemisphere title since 2009.

One of the key aspects to watch while the Boks are down under, and when the All Blacks and the Wallabies return to South Africa, will be how Heyneke Meyer’s team performs in one of the key aspects of the modern game – controlling the breakdowns.

Broken-play situations have become definitive points in games, with the constant law changes making the set pieces ever more structured.

Meyer and his forwards coach Johan van Graan have conceded as much.

Their answer was to bring Scottish breakdown guru Richie Gray and the machine he developed, aptly called the Collision King, to hone in on this area of play.

It will not be easy for the Boks as Australia’s Michael Hooper and the legendary All Black, Richie McCaw, are world-class practitioners in this field.

They do have a propensity to operate on the fringes of the law, though.

Meyer was not a fan of including a specialist fetcher, but was forced to acknowledge a flaw in his thinking by recalling Francois Louw a year after the former Stormers flanker left to join English club Bath.

Rugby aficionados were shocked that Meyer did not turn to the highly regarded Heinrich Brüssow, but Louw’s impact has demonstrated why the Boks needed a ball hound, in one form or the other.

Jake White was also not convinced about the value of a fetcher, but Hooper did so well for the Brumbies he won a Wallaby cap as the formidable David Pocock’s successor.

The Wallabies attach so much value to a specialist opensider that coach Robbie Deans recalled George Smith despite the great Brumbies opensider having spent some years languishing in Japan.

Meyer’s refusal to acknowledge the value of Brüssow confounded both locals and the Springboks’ opponents as the chunky Free Stater was a key component of the engine when the then

Tri-Nations was last won by the Boks in 2009.

The composition of the loose forward trio is key to any team’s success, so much so that the All Blacks can call on more than two able replacements if McCaw is injured.

The All Black captain limped off with a suspected knee injury during his team’s 28-13 win over Argentina in Hamilton yesterday.

The Boks possess the bigger and more abrasive loose forwards while New Zealand and Australia have the edge in the skills and pace stakes.

The All Blacks have finally found a replacement for Zinzan Brooke in number eight Kieran Read. They now have an edge over three similar Bok players in the form of Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen when the ball is taken wide.

Louw is the Boks’ play-to-the-ball man.

But interestingly, the squad does not include another loose forward.

McCaw is a master of the art, despite often getting away with daylight robbery through his breakdown infractions, manifested in the chorus of “roll away seven black!” calls regularly heard from match officials.

But the Boks would be better off trying to match or better him rather than complaining.

If they are to win the Rugby Championship this year, they must first win at the breakdown.

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