Berrick Barnes says the Wallabies expect Morne Steyn to start at Loftus and believes the criticism he has endured is unfair.
Many expect Steyn to be dropped following his capitulation in Dunedin against the All Blacks. However, on Monday Springboks head coach Heyneke Meyer spoke sympathetically about the flyhalf’s plight, intimating that he may grant him a stay of execution.
Steyn’s continued selection is sure to be met with a vitriolic response from a large section of the South African rugby fraternity, particularly since he is struggling in the facet of his play he is primarily selected for – his goal-kicking – and is thought to offer little beyond that.
Barnes, however, was surprised that the extent of the heat Steyn was taking, pointing to what he believes is his history of exhibiting big match temperament.
‘I have a lot of respect for Morne, having played against him for the last six or seven years. Few players will come through with the clutch plays like he can,’ Barnes told keo.co.za.
‘One poor outing with the boot doesn’t make a bad player. I’ve been there. It will be interesting to see what Heyneke does in terms of his team selection. We’re expecting him to play. He has a lot of history in big games in Pretoria. But [Meyer] has other options with a number of young boys showing promise. We expect him to start but we’ll adapt if he doesn’t.’
Barnes is likely to start at flyhalf in the absence of Quade Cooper and must brace for a physical examination. The Springboks have relied heavily on their inside centre to get them momentum at the gainline in the flyhalf channel. Barnes predicts they will attempt to do so once more at Loftus, but warned their threat extended beyond that.
‘Frans Steyn is 108kg or 110kg, so he isn’t a small boy. It is like trying to tackle Ma’a [Nonu] or Sonny Bill [Williams] – it isn’t an easy task. Most 10s would struggle. But I pride myself on my defence, it’s an attitude thing. You can’t have any fear in that regard,’ he said.
‘I’m sure they’ll be looking to come down that channel again but you also have to be aware of the threats they pose outside of that with Bryan Habana for example. Jean de Villiers doesn’t get a lot of wraps but he is one of the best I’ve faced in terms of his ability to go past you.’
The Wallabies, through their media offerings, have made no secret of the fact that they look to shift the heavy Springboks pack around by consistently dominating the collisions and getting a quick recycle to their backline. However, Barnes pointed to the balance they exhibited in their approach in Perth by pinning the Springboks in their territory with good tactical kicks. He explained that striking that balance again would be central to any potential success.
‘Over here people have a real appreciation of the tactical kicking game. In Australia you get booed for kicking but it is a huge aspect of winning a Test. How well you exit your own half determines how much pressure you’re made to negotiate,’ he said.
‘Traditionally the Boks have been extremely good in that department and built their success on that. We’ve put a lot of focus on it and we’ll have to be good at countering them. The side that best deals with the kicking game is going to go a long way to winning. But that isn’t the be all and end all. We have to find ways through them with ball in hand as well.’
There is also plenty of talk about becoming the first Australia team to win at Loftus and there is certainly a feeling among their players that this is their year. Barnes speculated on why the Springboks were so hard to beat at the venue but also reiterated their desire to break their duck.
‘It is like when teams come to play us in Brisbane, there’s some elements that just work for us. I’m not sure exactly what those are,’ he said. ‘There’s a big Bulls contingent in the Springboks’ squad and they’ve grown up playing there. You build that record over time and players have good associations with the venue and that gives them confidence.
‘I’m not sure what’s in the water up there but it has been tough for us to win there. I’ve gone there three times and come close but never been able to get the result. We want to be the first Australia side to win there. We’re under no illusions as to how much pressure the Boks’ boys are under and how much they would want to rectify the last few results, so it is going to be a big ask.’
By Ryan Vrede, in Johannesburg