While he prefers to view himself as just another cog in a powerful machine, Heinrich Brüssow will need to best David Pocock if the Springboks are going to progress beyond the World Cup quarter-final stage.
In the green and gold corner stands the challenger, a relatively short man with an elongated upper body, deceptively strong arms and a sense of such timing and spatial awareness that you’d swear he had a telepathic line to every matchday referee.
Brüssow has stolen opposition ball, shaped matches, and indirectly won series and titles for his team and country. As Peter de Villiers has intimated on more than one occasion, he is the man the Boks have built their game around as their collective success hinges largely on his ability to win the battle on the ground.
And yet Brüssow is, even by his own admission, not the best in the business. That unofficial title belongs to the Wallabies’ Pocock, a Hulk on a smaller scale, a master manipulator and reader of referees.
Pocock has been the standout player for the Wallabies over the past two seasons, contributing to some memorable wins for his adopted country. When Robbie Deans has started Pocock against the Boks, the Wallabies have prevailed more times than not. It’s no coincidence that the Wallabies have won five of the last six match-ups when Pocock was wearing the No 7 jersey.
Both camps have moved to play down the significance of history ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final in Wellington, but in the heart of the Bok compound, they will be formulating plans to nullify Pocock, a player once referred to as ‘That Old Devil’ by a frustrated Peter de Villiers.
Brüssow, a self-confessed admirer of Pocock’s abilities, admitted that it was going to be difficult to repress the Wallabies’ pack as well as the man himself.
‘He’s going to be a huge factor,’ the Bok No 6 told keo.co.za. ‘I don’t think the Wallabies are the same without him, they don’t really have anybody else who can do a similar job.’
There is a question of the occasion, and the effect it will have on Pocock (23) and Brüssow (25). Both have won the Tri-Nations with their respective teams, but both are playing in their first World Cup. Will they be able to handle the pressure when the stakes are so high? Will that pressure effect their decision making?
While they represent two of the world’s superpowers at international level, they have not yet experienced the pressure of knockout rugby. Given that Pocock (Western Force) and Brüssow (Cheetahs) play for bottom-end Super Rugby sides, they haven’t even been exposed to play-off rugby at a lower level.
Brüssow doesn’t see this a potential problem. He cited the vast experience of the senior members of the Bok squad, who have won Super Rugby trophies and World Cups. When it comes to his own performance in this his first ever knockout fixture, he backs himself to make the decisive calls.
‘I’m excited, it’s a special place to be. It’s do or die at the moment and everybody realises it,’ he said.
‘Our record against Australia is something that will probably be in the back of our minds, but I’d rather be the underdog than the favourite in a match like this. Sometime people don’t understand how pressure can effect you, particularly if you’re a youngster. And the Aussies have more young guys in their team than we do.
‘In the end It’s going to come down to who handles the pressure best on the day. We can’t afford to make any mistakes, we have to be sharp and have to make good decisions.’
The game will be refereed by Bryce Lawrence, and both Pocock and Brüssow will be looking to adapt to the official’s style early in the fixture. The performance at the breakdown and at the collisions will determine the flow of the game, and the Boks in particular cannot hope to win the Test if they don’t control the forward exchanges.
Be it on attack or defence, their success depends on a superior forward showing.
Raw power won’t be enough, and men like Brüssow and Schalk Burger will need to be accurate. Brüssow spoke about winning the race to the breakdowns and cleaning on the ball carrier to ensure a quick ruck recycle. On defence, he talked about walking the line of legality. Physical dominance at the collisions is so crucial, but Brüssow and Pocock will be testing Lawrence’s patience, especially when it comes to competing for or slowing down the opposition’s ball.
‘It has to be a team thing,’ said Brüssow, who has always been self-effacing when asked about his unique breakdown abilities. ‘We have to work as a unit to nullify guys like Pocock, because they have many other dangerous players out wide.
‘It’s always difficult for the referees [under the current law set]. It’s a fine line and the refs have to make the on-field call. As long as they are consistent I am happy. Players need to be able to adapt to the ref on the day.’
The Boks are fortunate to have some excellent kickers in Morne Steyn and Butch James, and the Wallabies’ James O’Connor has also been in great goal-kicking form in recent weeks. It’s for this reason that both sets of forwards will need to be careful that they don’t push the boundaries that fraction too far.
Again, Brüssow is confident that the Boks will succeed in walking that fine line. While their performance against Samoa lacked accuracy, they managed to keep their cool despite the riling tactics of the limited islanders. Over the course of the tournament, they have conceded relatively few penalties.
‘Our discipline was good against Samoa, they were really trying to get under our skin. That was a big positive. We will have to be disciplined once again this weekend,’ Brüssow said.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Wellington