South Africa’s inexperienced pack produced a top-class effort to surprise the All Blacks in Dunedin, but they need to step it up against the Wallabies in Pretoria this weekend.
While a Wallaby pack is often unfairly regarded as not being as daunting as those of their neighbours in New Zealand, a common feature of South Africa’s 26 defeats in 47 matches against Australia since the end of isolation has been a failure to live up to promises of smashing them physically upfront.
That’s because the Wallabies invariably bring a nous to their game that makes up for any perceived physical shortcomings.
Since 1992, South African rugby fans have been fed a steady diet of tripe about how physically superior the Springboks are to all other teams. That may have been the case in the amateur days, but since professionalism reached rugby union, all the top nations have strength and conditioning programmes that match, if not outstrip, those of the Boks.
When Jake White took over as Springbok coach in 2004, he used to talk about “men versus boys” and the demoralising effect it had on the Springboks when they saw the chiselled bodies of their rivals in the locker room after games.
The opposition is only too happy to feed the myth, because it means the Springboks will rely on brawn and not develop the more cerebral parts of their game.
Even on Tuesday, Wallaby flank Dave Dennis was toeing the party line.
“You’ve got to respect the All Blacks and Springbok packs, maybe it’s a visual thing because they just seem bigger,” he said. “We’ve obviously struggled in areas of our scrum in the past and we’re still working on being a strong forward pack. It’s not so much about our size, but our attitude and competitiveness go a long way.”
Springbok tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis has plenty of experience of playing against the Wallabies, and he pointed out that for them, scrummaging is not an end in itself, unlike their southern hemisphere rivals. They’re using the tight phases for far more than just physical combat.
“The Australian scrum is different. While the All Blacks view scrums in the same mould as us, as a place to exert physical dominance over the opposition, the Wallabies are much more tactical, they know what they want from certain areas of the field,” he said. “So it’s a big challenge against them, they have a great loosehead in Benn Robinson and he scrums well with Tatafu Polota-Nau, they’re both short and stocky.”
The Wallabies dominated the Springboks up front in the second half of the Perth game and Johann van Graan, the South Africa forwards coach, said the inexperienced pack would need to shift to the next level on Saturday.
“I’m really proud of the performance against the All Blacks, we played some of our best rugby and to have 58 percent territory and 52 percent possession against them at home is a great effort. But we can improve on the lineout, where we lost a couple of balls, and Australia scrummed very well against us in Perth. Nathan Sharpe is one of the best locks of all time, so their lineout is tricky and their kick-offs are to different places to put you under pressure,” Van Graan said.
As Du Plessis pointed out, one of the advantages of having inexperienced players new to Test rugby is that their hunger and enthusiasm ensures that they won’t head for the hills when the going gets tough.
“As they say, a hungry dog hunts best,” Du Plessis said.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is likely to name the same pack when he announces the team on Wednesday, leaving the pet issue of whether South Africa need a fetcher still unanswered. Francois Louw had a busy game in Dunedin, but he is not a classical fetcher, he’s more of a hybrid between an openside scavenger and a ball-carrying, tackling blindside.
Australia do have an out-and-out fetcher in Michael Hooper, who’s so good he managed to convert Brumbies coach Jake White, who also had a long-time aversion to that breed of rugby player.
“I like to think I won Jake over, and now he’s dragged David Pocock over to the Brumbies, maybe he’s changed his opinion on fetchers! But he still likes the big South African ball-carriers … “ Hooper said.
Of course, if the Springbok ball-carriers can blast through the tackles and get over the advantage line, then Hooper has a slimmer chance of pilfering the ball.
However, Franco-Irish referee Alain Rolland is the man in charge on Saturday and he is known to favor a bit more disruption at the ruck than southern hemisphere referees.
The Springboks will, of course, have analysed both the Wallabies and Rolland’s tendencies in their usual professional manner. Hopefully they will realise that they will need to be clever as well as physically fierce in order to overturn recent history against Australia – the ledger now standing at a record five straight defeats to the “other” Green and Gold team.