Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, veteran Fox Sports commentator GREG CLARK, talks about his son’s burgeoning rugby career, Michael Cheika’s future and the Test match in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Your take ahead of the Springbok-Wallaby encounter?
Greg Clark: There is a lot riding on the 87th Test meeting between South Africa and Australia on Saturday. The Wallabies may have retained the Nelson Mandela Plate in Brisbane, but the match is by no means a dead-rubber. There is plenty to play for when you look at the bigger picture. The Springboks are pretty much like the Wallabies in the sense that they lack consistency of late. We will have to wait and see whether or not they can gain some consistency leading up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, which is now less than a year away. I was surprised by the Springbok performance against the All Blacks because they were coming of a disappointing loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane. However, we all know that on their day, the Springboks are capable of causing an upset. In terms of the Wallabies, we are all very anxious back in Australia. (Clark will be calling the Test from the Sydney studio, having not travelled to South Africa this time). We are not terribly confident ahead of the clash but, in fairness, how could you be confident with the Wallabies having lost to Argentina at home for the first time in 35 years? However, when Australia play South Africa in any sport, and rugby in particular, there is always an edge to the contest. Personally, I can’t wait to see how the Wallabies respond to all the criticism - not only of their performance, but also of the coaching staff. Let’s hope it’s a cracking game in Port Elizabeth because both teams certainly need it.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the four changes for both teams?
Greg Clark: For Australia, the standout selection is that of the man nicknamed the Tongan Thor, Taniela Tupou. The 22-year-old grew up always wanting to be a Wallaby and idolised Toutai Kefu. Tupou has become a world-class scrummager and his first start for the Wallabies will be interesting because he is going to be packing down against 106-Test cap veteran Tendai Mtawarira. I’m really looking forward to witnessing that battle within a battle. It’s also great to see Michael Hooper back. It’s an unchanged backline for Australia, which is a bit of a surprise. However Michael Cheika has decided to stick with Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua as his 10-12 axis and they need a little bit of time to settle. In terms of the Springboks, they have selected a strong line-up and I really like the look of their forward pack. It would have been even better with the experience of Warren Whiteley at No.8, but Sikhumbuzo Notshe from the Stormers gets his first Test start. He made an impact coming off the bench against England in June. In the backline, Rassie Erasmus has stuck with Handré Pollard at flyhalf, who is a bit of a hit-and-miss player, but on his day he can fire for South Africa. André Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel, who played together against Wales in the US, occupy the centre berths. Esterhuizen is a big man, and in terms of physical presence you want lose much with him there in the absence of Damian de Allende. Moving Kriel back to the midfield makes sense because he is a better centre than wing and it’s good to see him at No.13. Meanwhile, Aphiwe Dyantyi is a great attacking player who I love watching. He has scored five tries in seven Tests, however, I haven’t seen too much of him on defence and the Wallabies might look to expose him on that front. Moreover, the diminutive Cheslin Kolbe will be up against a couple of big men in the form of Marika Koroibete and Israel Folau, who has been given licence to roam. In the backline, the South Africans might just have some chinks in their armour, but I can’t identify any weaknesses in the forward pack.
Sport24 asked: Is Michael Cheika still the right man for the Wallaby job?
Greg Clark: I believe so. Cheika’s coaching pedigree is second to none and he was the first coach to win silverware in both the northern and southern hemispheres. As coach of Leinster, he won the Heineken Cup in 2011 and when he went back to his home town of Sydney, he guided the Waratahs to their first ever Super Rugby title in 2014. To offer a cricket analogy, he has runs on the board. He is going through tough times at the moment and has been experimenting a fair bit, having used over 70 players since June 2016. He has been trying to build depth in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup. Ultimately, a coach has to go by his results and the reality is that he has only won a couple of Test matches this term. It has been a very disappointing season so far, but Cheika is a man of conviction. He has made decisions and is going to stick with them. All along, he has been very successful in business and he is doing the Wallaby job purely out of national pride. There is no doubt about it - he is a very proud Australian and will give it everything to try to get the best out of his team going forward. He loves what he does and there is no one else, who is really putting their hand up to replace him. Hopefully he is now more mature and won’t get too carried away with the criticism. He is fiery at times, but I would like to think that’s more passion than anything else. I personally think that it’s not just the head coach who should take the heat. It’s the whole coaching team, who need to put their hands up because clearly it’s not been working. They have got to make some changes to the game plan and I think the Wallabies possess the personnel to do well over the remaining Tests.
Sport24 asked: How would you compare the current crop to past Wallaby sides?
Greg Clark: It’s very difficult to compare teams from different eras, but people in Australia often talk about a team only being as good as how many players would make a World XV side. If you go back to 1991 when Australia won their first Rugby World Cup, half of the team would probably have cracked a World XV side. The team was made up of the likes of David Campese, Phil Kearns, Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh and the same could be said for the class of 1999, who had the likes of John Eales, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Tim Horan in the fold. How many of the current Wallabies would make a World XV? Probably only David Pocock. The likes of Michael Hooper and Israel Folau would also push for a spot, but would probably end up on the bench. In assessing how many potential World XV players are in your side, it’s a good gauge in terms of your strength. The current Wallaby side is building, so if you ask me after the Rugby World Cup I would have a better answer in terms of how good or bad the team is... The player drain is a worry for Australia as well as for South Africa and New Zealand. The Australian Rugby Union is trying to stop the flow of players heading to the northern hemisphere, but money speaks. However, Cheika is trying to build depth and he must be credited for also bringing back a handful of foreign-based players. There is a concerted effort to get top Australian players back and keep them in the country. Meanwhile, Wallaby captain Michael Hooper has signed a five-year deal with the ARU and that is incredible. We are trying to strengthen our Super Rugby sides and the only way to do that is by retaining top talent.
Sport24 asked: How proud are you of your son Cameron’s blossoming career?
Greg Clark: I’m very proud of Cameron’s playing career so far. He earned his debut for the Australian Sevens side in Wellington in 2012. He was a member of the squads that played at the 2013 Sevens World Cup and the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He also competed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I have commentated on his matches before and said to him: “You’ve got your gig and I’ve got mine. If you drop the ball or miss a tackle, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out!” It was very special and lots of fun calling his hat-trick at the Sydney Sevens in 2016. I’m very proud of what he has achieved in Sevens and he is now trying to bulk up to establish himself in fifteens. He signed with the Waratahs in 2017 and you will see him in their colours in 2019. It’s always great when Sevens players move on to the 15-man game. Ruhan Nel isn’t in the Springbok match-day 23 (and will turn out for Western Province against the Sharks) but he cracked the 30-man squad. He has clearly been noticed for his Sevens play and Kwagga Smith has gone on to become a great loose forward for the Lions. In Australia, the likes of Will Genia, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge have all played Sevens, so it has been a good breeding ground for fifteens players to hone their skills.
Sport24 asked: Does your heart and head tell you it will be a Wallaby win?
Greg Clark: Yeah, mate. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m tipping Australia to win the Test. They blew it against Argentina and they surely don’t need to be revved up for this showdown. The players and coaching staff are all under pressure, but I reckon it’s all going to come together in Port Elizabeth. The Boks are fifth in the World Rugby rankings and the Wallabies are seventh. However, should the Boks lose, they would swap places with the Wallabies and drop down to seventh. The last six Test matches between Australia and South Africa have been decided by eight points or less. While the Springboks haven’t lost to the Wallabies in South Africa in seven years, I foresee the Wallabies coming out on top in another tight encounter. A Reece Hodge penalty goal from 60 metres out could decide the Test like Kurtley Beale did in Bloemfontein in 2010. We all remember that one!