JON CARDINELLI doubts that the Springboks will be at their peak of their powers for the largely unexpected quarter-final showdown with the Wallabies.
The luck of the Irish is ironically South Africa’s misfortune. After losing four World Cup warm-up games and struggling to beat the USA in their opening Pool C match, Ireland produced an inspired performance to down the Wallabies at Eden Park.
It was an unexpected result that breathed fresh life into what was shaping to be an all-too predictable tournament, and it was a result that should have South Africans feeling more than a little nervous.
Ronan O’Gara said afterwards that the Ireland management had prepared the team to peak for that specific clash, and that it was always the plan to ride the resultant momentum into the play-off stages. Ireland should go on to top Pool C and play Wales in the play-offs, while Australia will finish second and meet the Boks sooner than anybody but an Irishman would have anticipated.
The Boks have played it cool when asked about the Ireland vs Australia result, and just how it will impact on their planning. But make no mistake, that result will have profound repercussions.
Ruan Pienaar admitted it was an unexpected result before attempting to steer the conversation back to the Boks’ upcoming game against lowly Namibia, while assistant coach Dick Muir went as far to suggest that because the Boks play the Wallabies every year in the Tri-Nations, they will not need as much time to analyse and prepare for that probable play-off in Wellington.
But an earlier admission by Muir was more telling. The Boks beat Fiji 49-3 on Saturday, scoring six tries in the process. Muir said that the side had shown steady progress both on attack and defence, and that it boded well for the rest of the tournament. He did, however admit that the Boks had come into this global competition underdone.
It was always the plan of Peter de Villiers and his coaching staff to prepare the Boks to peak in the play-offs, but they would have identified a semi-final showdown against the All Blacks as their defining moment. Going by how the Boks fared in the Tri-Nations and in the Pool D opener against Wales, not to mention their rotten run with injuries, it was always going to be a tough ask.
Had Ireland lost to the Wallabies and faced the Boks in the quarter-final, they would have provided stiff opposition, particularly at the set-piece. The pool matches were initially targeted by De Villiers as an opportunity for his best side to gel as a collective, and the Ireland clash would have been viewed as more a dress rehearsal for the showdown with the All Blacks than anything else.
I don’t think the Boks would have taken the Irish lightly, but they would have backed themselves to beat Declan Kidney’s men and take some confidence into the all-important clash with New Zealand. They would have continued to build in that match and sharpen a few areas before the crunch semi-final at Eden Park.
But Ireland’s victory will force them into an early meeting with Australia. There shouldn’t be a lot of confidence in the Boks at this stage considering their struggles for collective form. Injuries have also contributed to the battle for synergy and the fielding of their best side, as while they hammered Fiji last week four senior players missed the game and only two of the preferred combinations, the halfbacks and back row, started.
De Villiers will make a number of changes again for the match against Namibia, and will recall his first-choice players for the final pool clash against Samoa. This will be the Bok first-string’s last opportunity to improve as a collective before the play-offs.
Muir said that the Boks’ came into the tournament underdone, and that the game against Fiji was a step in the right direction. But can the Boks make sufficient strides before meeting a team of real substance?
Their last defeat to Australia (in Durban) was blamed on a lack of game time, and it wouldn’t surprise to hear that self same excuse rolled out following another defeat to the Wallabies. The significant difference is that one defeat would have resulted in nothing but wounded pride, while the next would have resulted in the Boks’ exit from the tournament.
The Wallabies have beaten the Boks seven times in 11 matches since De Villiers’s tenure began back in 2008. Despite their recent defeat to Ireland, they will fancy themselves to down the Boks again, and their cause should be aided by the return of players like Digby Ioane, Stephen Moore and the Boks’ nemesis, David Pocock.
It is by no means a forgone conclusion, but the odds are heavily stacked against this Bok team. As their own coaches and players suggest, the best players have not enjoyed sufficient game time and they are yet to click as a unit. Their time to prepare and build continuity has been cut by as much as a week, and judging by their recent showings and injury-effect circumstances, they may struggle to produce a collective performance capable of upsetting a Wallabies side with established combinations, confidence and momentum.