Will Boks prevail?

2008-08-22 00:00

Wallaby coach Robbie Deans says he has no idea what to expect from the Springboks in this afternoon’s Tri-Nations Test at King’s Park.

He is not alone. South Africans, and indeed the rugby world, are confused by a tactical approach that has seen the Springboks ditch their structured and disciplined game plan that won them the World Cup less than a year ago and replace it with a curious, half-baked approach, which has played into opposing hands rather than their own.

Just which Springbok team we will see this afternoon remains to be seen. Coach Peter de Villiers has publicly spoken about his team chasing the four tries and a bonus point win today, which would keep them in the title chase. But an expansive, ambitious game plan will be welcomed by the Wallabies who, on the evidence of the Boks’ defeat by the All Blacks in the Test last Saturday, would fancy themselves in a wide-ranging contest where strong forward play plays second fiddle to a battle at the breakdown.

De Villiers, of course, was not helped at Newlands by his players and the referee who combined to ensure that the Springboks played almost the whole Test without any phase-ball possession. The error-ridden Boks either coughed up the ball in the collision or failed to protect it while referee Matt Goddard allowed the All Blacks to infringe with impunity at the breakdown.

The result was that the Springboks lacked any continuity in attack while the All Blacks were fed a steady and unexpected stream of turnover possession.

The Boks certainly have the talent to win this Test. They were stronger than the All Blacks in the set pieces a week ago and they have a mobile, powerful pack.

But the trick is to play to their strength rather than away from it by adopting a more direct approach, establishing a bridgehead across the gainline and then allowing their forwards and backs to run on to the ball.

De Villiers was yesterday still adamant that the South Africans would “play a total expansive game”, but senior Springboks, centre Jean de Villiers and flank Juan Smith, have both hinted that there will be a return to a more sensible, structured game plan.

“You can be more precise at the breakdowns if you are structured,” said Smith, “because you can get the numbers there to secure possession.”

Wallaby coach Robbie Deans has resisted suggestions that he should send two fetchers (George Smith and Phil Waugh) into battle to dominate the breakdown. Instead he has opted for the influential Rocky Elsom, a muscular, physical forward in the South African mould, on the one flank.

Former South African Dan Vickerman is also back to further boost the physicality of the Wallaby pack and their lineout.

The Boks, impressive in the scrum last week, and with two specialists (Matfield and Bekker) in the lineouts should be strong in the set pieces, but it is their ability at the breakdown which will be under the spotlight.

De Villiers is looking to New Zealand referee Lyndon Bray to keep a sharp eye on Wallaby fetcher George Smith while allowing Schalk Burger and the other Bok loose forwards a fair crack in scrambling for the loose ball.

Shark supporters, who still cannot sleep at night, will remember Bray.

He was the touch judge at the 2007 Super 14 final who turned a blind eye to the Bulls’ series of indiscretions at the ruck, which resulted in Bryan Habana’s title-winning try after the hooter. The King’s Park crowd will be hoping Bray’s 20/20 vision has returned, but, as De Villiers remarked last weekend, one of the demands of Test rugby is playing the referee rather than the laws.

It could again come down to that. The Boks, shaken and stirred — as they were in beating the All Blacks in Dunedin — have the ability to bounce back with a win today. But they need to play to their strengths and avoid flopping hopelessly between two tactical stools.

The Boks, and their coach, have the country on their backs and are desperate for the win; the Wallabies have to win today or next week at Ellis Park to set up a Tri-Nations decider against New Zealand in Brisbane on September 13.

Both teams will be up for the occasion … and we hope the referee is too.

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