Bet on Blacks

RYAN VREDE writes the All Blacks will win the Rugby Championship comfortably, with the Springboks’ cause to be undermined by the absence of key players and the struggles of others.

I’ve written extensively that this tournament will be a greater measure of the new generation Springboks and coach Heyneke Meyer’s aptitude than the series against England was. England rarely exploited the Springboks’ vulnerabilities in the manner the southern hemisphere’s elite will do.

And there are certainly worrying vulnerabilities.

Injuries have robbed Meyer of the services of Schalk Burger (knee) and JP Pietersen (thumb). Burger’s industry and abrasiveness has been at the heart of the Springboks’ success, while Pietersen has been consistently impressive in recent months, looking to have recaptured an appetite for the game.

Elsewhere, dynamic prop Coenie Oosthuizen (neck) was important in their planning and strategy, while uncapped players like Duane Vermuelen and Johann Goosen would have been part of and indeed potentially amplified the Springboks’ strength – Goosen lending Meyer a different dimension at flyhalf to what Morne Steyn offers. These are significant losses.

Their challenge is compounded by the concerning form of their halfback pair, Francois Hougaard and Steyn, who are absolutely central to the success of their game plan.

The Springboks’ coaching team have deep reservations about Hougaard in particular. His tactical kicking has been poor and will only improve marginally with tailored coaching. Meyer has greater faith in Ruan Pienaar’s kicking game, but he only joins the squad this week and will not start against Argentina. How Hougaard responds to this challenge will be decisive to the longevity of his Test career.

Meyer’s confidence in Steyn remains high and he is optimistic that the break he had after the Bulls’ Super Rugby exit (his first in three seasons) will rejuvenate him. Steyn needs a good tournament for his own self belief, to repay the faith his coach will show in him and to stall the advance of Goosen, who, if fit, will be considered to start on the year-end tour to the UK.

A career defining tournament also awaits Andries Bekker, who missed the England series through injury. Bekker’s technical ability has never been in question but there are lingering concerns about his mental toughness in high pressure matches. Bekker will unseat Juandre Kruger at No. 5 lock and will be primarily tasked with engineering the Springboks’ dominance at lineouts, a facet of play they will place a premium on in the context of their game plan. He was supposed to be a natural successor to Victor Matfield but is in danger of being overwhelmed by Matfield’s legacy.

The Springboks will benefit from a favourable draw, which should see them make the early running with wins over Argentina. But they will struggle against the more settled Blacks, who, in the series sweep over Ireland in June, showed the benefits of continuity in coaching with Steve Hansen, the retention of the core of the World Cup winning side and the emergence of Test-standard rookies like Same Cane, Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick. A positive prognosis on Kieran Read, who is becoming as influential for the side as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, further improves their prospects.

Australia will take some beating, but don’t pose the threat the Blacks do. Argentina will take time to become accustomed to the unique demands of the tournament. They will be better placed in 2013, as will the Springboks.

This year though – bet on Blacks.

Probable Springboks 15 - 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Lwazi Mvovo, 13 Jean de Villiers, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.