JON CARDINELLI says that the Wallabies will provide an intense examination of the Springboks’ largely untested tactical game.
Peter de Villiers was beating his chest after the Boks’ first pool win over the Welsh, describing the performance as ‘brilliant’.
He was at it again following the narrow 13-5 victory at North Harbour Stadium, declaring that the Boks would not face a challenge as physical as that of Samoa. The Wallabies and All Blacks, De Villiers chirped, would not demand as much blood, sweat and aggro at the point of contact.
Not for the first time in his controversial career, De Villiers has got it worryingly wrong. The Wallabies have beaten the Boks in seven of the 11 Tests since De Villiers came to power, which is a record superior to that of the All Blacks in the same time frame.
They have beaten the Boks five times in the last six games, and most significantly, have stood up to the Boks’ trademark physicality in all matches played in 2011.
The Aussies’ mental grip tightened when Ewen McKenzie’s Reds gathered momentum in the 2011 Super Rugby competition. The Reds overwhelmed two of the South African superpowers, the Bulls and Stormers. They dismantled the latter by playing direct rugby that was complemented by the tactical kicking accuracy of Wallabies halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper.
National coach Robbie Deans promised that the Wallabies would ride the wave of the Reds’ success. He delivered on that promised by picking a team and implementing a playing strategy that ultimately saw the Aussies capturing the Tri-Nations crown.
Not much would have been read into that first Tri-Nations fixture in Sydney, but a full strength Bok side battled to combat the Wallabies’ physicality in the second Test between these two sides in Durban.
Notably, it was a game played in inclement weather. Like the Reds, the Wallabies showed that they could beat the best the Boks had to offer by playing a confrontational game. They showed that they could outplay the Boks tactically, and they showed that they had the mental steel to close out the game.
They’ve dropped a big game since then, losing to Ireland in wet conditions in the Pool C match played at Eden Park. This does not suggest that they lack the ability to excel in the rain. The win against the Boks in Durban is testament to the fact.
The forecast for Sunday’s quarter-final in Wellington is clear, but if you’ve spent some time in the New Zealand capital you will know that the weather can turn nasty in the space of a few hours.
The nature of the contest is also likely to influence the tactics of the two teams. The Boks have stuck to one playing style in this tournament, while the Wallabies have shown impressive variation. Their coaches are now talking about tightening up for the knock-out stages and plan to tackle the Boks’ physicality head on.
They have some versatile players in their pack, and should be able to match the Boks at the collisions and breakdowns. They have all the skills out wide, with Genia and Cooper capable of switching between a tactical kicking game and an all-out attack. Having Berrick Barnes at No 12 will also give the Wallabies more options in both departments.
On Monday, Australia’s director of coaching David Nucifora did not confirm Barnes’ selection for the quarter-final but said that the team would be picked with the opponent’s strengths in mind. Nucifora said that the occasion would demand a slight adjustment to their game plan.
Starting Barnes would allow the Wallabies a strong tactical kicking presence at inside centre. The Boks are fortunate to have Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn in this respect, but will miss the kicking power and accuracy of Frans Steyn.
The Boks are yet to be tested up front at this tournament, and are yet to be challenged when it comes to tactical play. Their execution was poor against Samoa but they played a smart territorial game. They will need to up their intensity and accuracy levels when they meet the Wallabies at the coalface, and will also need to outplay the Aussies in the battle of the boot.
What will help the Wallabies going into this fixture is the fact that they’ve excelled in these departments in preceding games. Through the Reds, they subdued and conquered limited Bulls and Stormers teams. In the Tri-Nations, they were equally proficient in outbullying the predictable Boks and then putting the boot in.
From a South African perspective, it bodes badly for Sunday’s all-important quarterfinal at the Wellington Regional Stadium.