Boks seek grand Mallett finale

Nick Mallett (File)
Nick Mallett (File)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - One of their former assistant coaches has just contributed to making the Springboks’ World Cup route arguably that crucial bit tougher … now they may need the help of an ex-senior coach in Nick Mallett to try to alter that situation.

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Gert Smal’s input as forwards coach was clearly influential in Ireland’s upset Pool C victory over Australia on Saturday, leading to the once unexpected likelihood that South Africa will now have to overcome their southern hemisphere arch-rivals the Wallabies and All Blacks in respective quarter-finals and semi-finals in the space of a week before they can even contemplate a berth in the final.

It would represent the most taxing route yet for the two-time champions to repeat their Webb Ellis Cup trick.

Obviously the spirited Irish's 15-6 win at Eden Park does raise the question of whether the Six Nations stalwarts may have been a stiffer “quarters” obstacle than had even been budgeted for, but you also suspect deep down that the Boks would still rather play them than the Australians at that stage of the tournament.

Is that still possible?

Well, you could always contemplate the possibility of South Africa quietly trying to finish second in their pool if that somehow becomes a realistic option.

But that is a massively unlikely scenario, given the competitive nature of Pool D where the second qualifying place is not a cut and dried sort of issue; Wales have just earned a hugely important lifeline by pipping Samoa in a gripping, high-stakes arm-wrestle on Sunday.

The Welsh have now got both of their most difficult matches on paper out of the way and with just Namibia and Fiji to come for them, really should join the Boks in the last eight.

South Africa are hardly going to “chuck” their own next fixture against the Namibians on Thursday, because then they’d probably be requiring a win in their last pool match against Samoa, always a possible banana-peel foe, to even just seal their very presence in the quarters.

And it not as though theirs is the last fixture in Pool D, with all the potentially useful mathematical thoughts that could bring - still to come after it is a clash between Wales and Fiji, on the very last day of all World Cup pool play on October 2.

Besides, there is always the moral issue to consider, as well as the strong case for saying that it is daft to deliberately surrender a winning habit and that simultaneous old sporting cliché of “momentum”.

So the only way you can see the Boks now avoiding Australia is if that man Mallett, in almost certainly his last match after some four years as Italy’s coach, can mastermind a famous win for his charges against Ireland in Dunedin on the same day that Wales have that Fijian date - with the Wallabies then presumably slipping back into top slot in Pool C.

It is not completely out of the question, even if the Italians’ last of three wins against Ireland in 19 international meetings was as far back as 1997 in Bologna, before they even joined the Six Nations.

Just this year in that competition, though, the Italians came within three minutes of beating them in Rome, until they were cruelly undone by Ronan O’Gara’s dropped goal for a 13-11 Irish victory.

Fuelled by some tears-in-the-eyes Mallett motivation in his swansong with Italy in Dunedin, his men atoning for that heartbreak in February cannot be ruled out, even if smart money will surely be laid quite heavily on Ireland.

Mallett’s contract with Italy, it was reported earlier in the year, is not being renewed after the World Cup.

Keep in mind also that the Italians famously knocked over France in the 2011 Six Nations, so although they tend to bring up the Six Nations rear, they are not averse to claiming big fellow-European scalps in once-off inspired showings.

But that won’t change the widespread belief now that the Boks have a particularly hard road ahead in the bid to become first-time retainers of the World Cup …
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