The Springboks are two wins away from completing the most outstanding season but their most testing period under coach Peter de Villiers will come in the next three weeks.
Accounting for the elite players from the home unions in the British & Irish Lions series, beating the All Blacks in a two-Test series and completing the home leg of the Tri-Nations with a convincing victory over Australia at Newlands. It has certainly be a wonderful season for the Springboks.
But there is no doubt that there will be a palpable sense of incompleteness and missed opportunity if they fail to secure the Tri-Nations title.
The All Blacks’ come from behind victory over Australia on Saturday means to realise that goal they have to win two of their three remaining Tests, two against Australia in Perth and Brisbane, and one against the Blacks in Hamilton.
The Springboks last won two Tests in Australasia in 1998 (in Perth and Wellington) and proceeded to win the title. The core of the current group of Springboks came close to achieving two victories on tour, in 2004 and 2005, and in 2008 they won for the first time in New Zealand since 1998.
The measure of how good this side are will be whether they have the aptitude to replicate the form they’ve displayed in South Africa, on the road.
That they have the technical ability and game plan to win in Australasia is undoubted. However, grabbing rare away wins requires significantly more than those two attributes.
The travel schedule is a demanding one and the mental strain of being away from familiar surrounds and transitioning from playing in front of 40 000 plus disciples to being subjected to the hostile environment of Brisbane and Hamilton is massive. That said, the large South African population in Perth should aid their cause slightly.
They won’t be looking beyond Saturday’s Test in the Western Australian city.
Australia have lost three on the bounce in the tournament to date and now seem out of contention for the title bar a dramatic turnaround which features bonus point wins in at least two of their three remaining Tests, and the hope that the Springboks negotiate the Blacks on 12 September.
However, to write off Robbie Deans’ charges would be foolish. They’ll be determined to breathe life into their campaign by downing the Springboks in successive Tests.
The benefit for the Springboks is that they’ll have a good idea of how the Wallabies will play in search of the bonus point required.
The Wallabies were hardly impressive in adopting an expansive approach against the Blacks in Sydney on Saturday (they relied on six penalties for their 18 points), and didn’t make a telling impact when attempting to play in that manner against the Springboks at Newlands a fortnight ago.
They will, however, be forced to get some width on their game in Perth and this is a scenario the Springboks will relish.
The Springboks’ game plan in 2009 has been simple and low risk but brutally effective, relying on physicality at the collision points, a rabid breakdown contest and a tactical kicking game spearheaded by their excellent halfback pair of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn.
The Springboks also have recent experience in resisting the expansive ambitions of their opponents. At King’s Park the Blacks attempted to run them ragged but were blunted by the patient and resolute defensive and superb tactical kicking which forced them to launch their attacks from deep in their territory, and those attacks proved to be impotent because of the Springboks’ tactical and defensive excellence.
Notwithstanding the need to attack, a replication of that defensive performance will be key against the Wallabies as the Springboks go in search of greatness.
By Ryan Vrede