John Smit says Australia’s dominance of the Springboks in the last two years will benefit them, but he draws confidence from his side’s superior experience in World Cup play-off matches.
The Springboks have lost five of their last six Tests against the Wallabies, two of those defeats coming in South Africa. Smit said you couldn’t discount that as a factor in assessing their chances, but stressed that knock-out rugby is a different beast altogether.
‘They have one up on us over the last two seasons. They’ll definitely feel that they have a mental edge because results have favoured them,’ Smit said.
‘We’ve thrown a couple of different options at them selection-wise, so you have to bear that in mind when assessing those results. We view this as a fresh start in terms of where we want to go over the next three weeks. They’ll want to tap into what has happened in this fixture in the last two years. So it is two different mindsets. It would be naive not to accept that.
‘[But] Tri-Nations games are different to what a World Cup Test provides [in terms of playing style]. We’re both in a situation where there it is do or die. Our experience in these situations is beneficial. We’ll see if we can use that experience to help us. We have to make sure we take the heat and still maintain the composure to do what you’ve set out to. There are so many factors that come into play. Fortunately we’ve got a couple of guys who have seen a couple of different scenarios play out [at the World Cup].’
Smit added there was a discernible change in the feel within the squad. ‘The real World Cup starts now. The tournament is set up in two different phases and you definitely feel the shift in pressure and intensity now,’ he said.
‘Some guys who have played in World Cups before will attest to that, and the others who haven’t been here before will feel a different kind of vibe. But pressure creates special performances and the key question is whether we can use that [pressure] to our advantage.’
Smit said the results of the pool phase were irrelevant now, but argued that those four matches were beneficial in other ways. ‘We came into the tournament a little undercooked and we certainly derived some value in terms of the game time and getting players into form. Now everybody is on the same level. The results from the pool phase aren’t relevant, but the experiences thereof are still valuable,’ he said.
Asked where Australia’s primary threat lies, coach Peter de Villiers said: ‘Their decision-making [in turnover situations] is spot on. Where they are better than most is that they attack from deep and make yardage immediately and force you to scramble on defence. They force the width and spaces on the field. If they get that right we’re in for a long day. If we can shut them down, it’ll be an equal contest.’
In this regard, the Springboks will have to nullify the influence of openside flank David Pocock to improve their chance of victory. His value was illuminated in his absence in the defeat to Ireland and the Springboks have to improve their ball retention exponentially (they are among the leading teams in the tournament for errors or turnovers while in possession) if they hope to render him a non-factor.
‘They are very good at the breakdown, that’s where they make so much of their play from. We’ll have to look after our ball through phases,’ De Villiers said.
He said there was also a plan to negotiate the mercurial Quade Cooper. ‘We will get it wrong if we make his decisions for him. If we allow him to make his own, we’ll be ready for him.’