Springbok prop BJ Botha believes the absence of Nathan Sharpe and other injury-enforced disruptions could have serious implications for the Wallabies.
It was announced on Tuesday that 79-cap Wallaby lock, Sharpe, would miss Saturday’s Test against the Springboks as a result of a shoulder injury sustained against New Zealand on Saturday. Botha explained that his experience was as big a loss as what he would offer the team in his technical ability.
‘I think Sharpe made a telling contribution against the All Blacks and his loss is a massive one for the Wallabies,’ Botha, capped 17 times at tighthead for the Springboks and who now plays for Ulster in Ireland, told keo.co.za.
‘We saw how well he carried against the All Blacks and he is a pivotal part of their lineout. But more than that his experience and the contribution he makes from a leadership perspective is massive.
‘With Sharpe out Rocky Elsom will have had to shoulder more responsibility from a lineout, ball carrying and leadership perspective.
‘I thought he did really well against the All Blacks considering he’d been injured for a significant period before that. But he brought that same aggression and in your face attitude he had at Leinster. He’s also important because he combines well with George Smith in the sense that he carries a lot of ball allowing Smith to focus on the breakdown.
‘With regards to Sharpe, yes they have replacements but it is seriously debatable whether they are anywhere near the same quality.’
The Wallabies have also lost two top quality midfielders in Berrick Barnes and captain, Stirling Mortlock, in as many matches, while Elsom and fullback James O’Connor come into the team with serious doubts around whether they have fully recovered knee and leg injuries respectively.
The Wallabies’ woes are further amplified by the struggles of their tighthead prop Al Baxter in Sydney and indeed in the opener in Auckland. Baxter was regularly pinned for scrum infringements in both those matches and suffered the indignity of being substituted 31 minutes into last week’s Test. He has been dropped for Saturday’s Test in Perth for Ben Alexander.
Botha empathised with Baxter, and added that they were lacking quality cover at tighthead.
‘It’s a mental thing when you’re getting pinned consistently. You start questioning your technique, even though it’s served you well in the matches preceding that and it’s always at the back of your mind. There’s no doubt that it has an impact on your ability to perform at your best,’ he said.
‘They don’t have too many options in that position, and that was evident in Matt Dunning’s conversion from loosehead. Alexander has to stand up to the challenge of Beast [Mtawarira], who has been scrumming well of late.’
Asked if the Wallabies would be vulnerable at scrum time Botha said, ‘I wouldn’t say they’re vulnerable but I’d like to think the Springboks would want to impose themselves there irrespective of who they were up against because they have been good in that facet of play throughout the Tri-Nations.
‘If you’re being dominated at scrum time you begin to think “not again” when someone knocks on or concedes a free kick. The rest of your game suffers as well. So the Boks will want to be going forward and creating that doubt in the minds of the Wallabies.
‘That said, the Australian scrum has improved immensely in the last two years and there’s no way they’ll be pushovers come Saturday.’
Both also scoffed at the recent criticism of the Springboks’ kick-chase approach, which All Blacks coach Graham Henry insinuated was boring.
‘I don’t think that is a valid criticism and I sense that Graham Henry made the comment to put doubt in the mind of the Springboks,’ he said.
‘I’d like to think they’re intelligent enough to see it for what it is and not be coaxed into playing any differently.
‘They’re playing to their strengths and if Henry had the players the Springboks do, he’d be playing in exactly the same way. But he doesn’t. Other than Dan Carter who is an excellent tactical kicker, the strength of their players is attacking with ball in hand.
‘The Springboks are playing winning rugby and the primary objective of any team is to win Test matches, whether it be by three or 20 points. A win is a win and how you achieve that win depends on how well you utilise the resources available to you.’
By Ryan Vrede