Has the World Cup thrown Australia’s first Tri-Nations win in a decade into a different perspective? Yes. Do their back-to-back victories over South Africa in that tournament have any bearing on the upcoming RWC11 quarter final between the two teams? No.
While the Mole favours the original Tri-Nations format of home and away matches that was returned to in the build up to this World Cup, rather than the three match series that has been a more recent trend, this particular tournament was riddled with inconsistencies. Crazy Piet wasn’t particularly keen on his senior players undergoing the 12 hour flight to Australia/New Zealand [or the return flight for that matter] and opted to keep them back home in camp in South Africa – cue John Smit bringing a team of nippers and ne’er-do-wells Down Under and taking a couple of pastings from full strength All Black and Wallaby teams. Smit himself showed up well in those matches, nabbing a try in each, but the Boks were hockeyed out the gate.
Of the match-day selection that lined up for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika against Australia in the first match of the Tri-nations, only eight of twenty-two are in the RWC11 squad: Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, John Smit [who all started that day] and replacements Chilliboy Ralepelle, CJ van der Linde and Patrick Lambie. It’s also safe to say that just two of them are likely starters in the quarter-final rematch: Steyn at outhalf and Lambie at fullback.
The Aussies won that game 39-20 [and indeed led 39-6 on 55 minutes], but that result, given the quality of the team the Boks put out, is largely irrelevant. To be frank, the Mole thinks it totally irrelevant to quarter final proceedings.
Less so was the return game in Durban, where a largely full-strength Boks lost 9-14 against the Wobs. However, that game too bears the proverbial asterisk in the Mole’s memory. The Boks proper were playing their first game of the tournament, and while they fielded a strong team [albeit one that didn’t feature overbitten talisman Schalk, steak-fed bulldozer Bismarck or sticks-dissector Morne] they were a long, long way from match fitness. It was Fourie du Preez’s first game for the Boks since the November 2009 international against Ireland, for example, and Butchie’s first start at outhalf for them since August 2008, three years previously. Still, it was a good win for the Wobblies, and the last game between the two sides before this weekend’s match-up.
The form profile of the two teams in this tournament is considerably different. The Wobs started with a bonus-point win over Italy in a game where they took all the Italian forwards could throw at them before the half-time whistle and then cut them to shreds with high-quality backplay in the second half. In contrast, the Boks initially started well against the Welsh but were outplayed for almost the entire match, barely coming away with a one-point win in a game that they probably deserved to lose.
Australia were rocked by an uber-physical Irish performance the next time out, with serious faultlines coming to light in their scrum. The Boks will look to capitalise on this and have the tools to do so: with Steenkamp, Mtawarira, Smit, the du Plessis brothers, van der linde, Botha, Russouw and Matfield, then have incredible strength in depth in their front five.
While the Aussies have a strong corps of engine room mechanics in Horwill, Vickerman and Sharpe, there are serious questions over their front-row. Moore is quality through and through, but both Alexander and Kepu came off second best against Ireland, and the back-ups are another step down. Polota-Nau is struggling for form and full fitness, Slipper is a nipper and Ma’afu is just absolutely f*cking terrible.
Everything points to Dingo Deans having stumbled on his best backline through accident and injury. With Genia and Cooper bolted on at halfback, Berrick Barnes and AAC make up a potent playmaker/runner combination in the centres, and the return from injury of Digby Ioane – who was in great form before breaking his thumb against the Eyeties – sees him paired in the back three with hot-tempered larrikin James O’Connor and matinee idol Kurtley Beale.
Personally speaking, I think that Drew Mitchell was always going to be behind a fully-fit O’Connor and Ioane – he missed a lot of rugby with his horrific ankle injury, and while they were carving it up in the Super XV and Tri-Nations, he was busy rehabbing and trying to keep a positive attitude. The centre combination of Barnes/Two Dads brings so much more to the park than McCabe/Faainga, who were essentially old-before-their-time defensive stalwarts. It’s a backline with tremendous potential to score tries from anywhere: first phase, counter-attack, multiple-phase … these lads have skills and pace. With Scotland out of the tournament, they look easily the most threatening backline left … ho ho ho!
I’m pretty sure that they’ll be starved of possession, however. They’ll probably leak penalties at scrum-time to the Boks [especially a Steenkamp/ du Plessis brothers front row] and with Morne Steyn in the hot-seat, penalties mean points, even in Windy Welly.
The form of Ironman Danie Russouw will give huge cheer to Crazy Piet, as Bakkies has struggled with injury and Victor Matfield is less of an influence around the park than he used to be. He’s still imperious from touch, but the days when he roamed the backline like a pall-playing second No8 are few and far between in comparison with his mid-decade prime. The lovable eye-gouger Schalk Burger is in terrific form, and even Zoolander Spies decided to break out Blue Steel in the face of the lairy Samoans, easily his best performance of the tournament to date. We’re still waiting for Magnum, though.
Morne Steyn will kick the ball up in the air a lot, and Habana, Pietersen, Fourie and de Villiers will pressure Kurtley Beale when it comes down. Steyn and du Preez will drop back deep to watch out for balls kicked back long … neither of them have a huge amount of pace compared to the Aussie backs, so if there’s a line-break off the counter-attack, they’re ripe for five-point punishment. Lambie has been a little rock as the last line of defense, but he can only tackle one guy at a time.
This is a tough one to call. The Heinrich Brussouw and David Cowpoke battle at the breakdown will be a hell of an individual contest, but with Bryce Lawrence in charge, I don’t think it’s going to decide the match. The edge in all three set-pieces goes to the Boks in my book, as does the definite advantage in place-kicking. I think that those will be the key factors in a narrow Bokke win.