Australia, for the first time in recent history, will be far more formidable opponents than New Zealand.
The romance and tradition around the Springboks-All Blacks rivalry will endure despite them playing each other far too often for the Test to capture the imagination as it once did.
However, as a contest it’s been devalued because the Blacks find themselves in a period of transition after the departure of key senior players, and have stalled in their progression because their incumbent coaching staff seem to have taken this group as far as their technical and man-management skill has allowed.
This must not be mistaken for an arrogant assertion that the Springboks will smash the Blacks when they meet in Hamilton on 12 September. They would have come off back-to-back Test matches against Australia in Australia, and will then front a team with a proud home record and one with the masterful Dan Carter at flyhalf.
However, because of their tactical superiority, Australia will be the measure of how good this Springbok side is.
The Blacks were tactically diabolical at King’s Park, spinning a greasy pill wide with reckless abandon on a wet pitch for the majority of the Test. The Springboks’ defensive effort was super for the most part, and as a result the Blacks became progressively more rudderless, predictable and impotent.
Blacks’ head coach Graham Henry defended the tactically naive approach, saying that it was the correct one against that particular Springbok side, which was a perplexing assertion from a usually tactically astute man.
The reality, and this is one the New Zealand media and some of their respected analysts have pointed out, is that for a range of reasons, the primary one of those being inexperience in key positions, they were unable to adapt to a more pragmatic, measured approach.
They wanted to land a devastating punch, or a series punches, and weren’t equipped for a prolonged arm wrestle with the Springboks. Australia will be.
Test rugby, in particular, has evolved into something of a chess match, with sides refusing to take risks in their own half, instead, through a hybrid of up and unders or punts into space, and a committed kick chase, look to force each other into errors in their half and launch their attacks from there.
Springbok captain John Smit rightly praised the Springboks’ execution of a game plan that featured continuous kicks on the Blacks’ back three (or whoever had dropped back). The Blacks became predictable in that they would mostly look to counter with ball in hand, when they should have replied with a more conservative, but tactically correct, kick return and forced the Springboks into errors in their territory.
Australia, under the tutelage of renowned coach Robbie Deans, have the players with the skill, intelligence, tactical appreciation and discipline to counter the Springboks’ pragmatism, should they choose to replicate the game plan that saw them prosper in Durban.
In the backline, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Stirling Mortlock, Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau and Luke Burgess, all of whom are likely to front the Springboks on Saturday, are accomplished tactical kickers. The Blacks erred in their selection in Durban by fielding a backline dominated by skilled runners but ordinary tactical kickers.
In addition, the Wallabies won’t be as vulnerable at the lineouts as the Blacks were over two Tests, and have made notable improvements in their scrummaging, long perceived to be an area of weakness, in the last two years.
They also boast formidable fetchers in George Smith, Phil Waugh and David Pocock. Smith is likely to start, with Waugh and Pocock ensuring that the Wallabies pose a sustained threat at the breakdown. It was a facet of play the Blacks failed in, conceding a spate of penalties at ruck time in both Tests. The Wallabies would have noted that in their analyses, and will stress discipline and patience at the breakdown, particularly if prolific goal kicker Morne Steyn starts.
The Springbok coaching staff’s ability to refine their approach to exploit potential weaknesses of the Wallabies is their next challenge. Subtle adaptations to a very effective game plan are needed, not a complete overhaul.
The old black enemy will always elicit an emotional response from the South African rugby fraternity, and will continue to be the fixture the Springboks attribute the most meaning to. But it is Australia now who will provide the truest test of their skill and mettle.
By Ryan Vrede