The Springboks dominated New Zealand up front in Dunedin on September 15, but their effort was marred by terrible goal-kicking that saw the South Africans waste 20 points and lose 21-11.
“We’ve worked hard the last few weeks and the front row gave one of their best performances and the loose forwards got stuck in as well. We can improve on the lineout, where we lost a couple of balls, but the kick-offs were good and so was the ball-retention – we had our lowest turnover rate of the whole year. Francois Louw did very well, especially on the ground, while Duane Vermeulen was good at the breakdown too.
“I’m really proud of the performance against the All Blacks, we played some of our best rugby and to have 58% territory and 52% possession against them at home is a great effort. But unfortunately we just didn’t get the points,” Van Graan told a news conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
But Van Graan warned that the Wallabies, led by Nathan Sharpe, the grand old man of Australian rugby, would be another major challenge up front.
“Australia scrummed very well against us in Perth and Nathan Sharpe is one of the best locks of all time, so their lineout is tricky and they kick to different places to put you under pressure. Playing against the number two side in the world is always a massive challenge,” Van Graan said.
Experienced Springbok tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis said that while the Alll Blacks were a daunting physical prospect in the scrums, the Wallabies were clever, strategic scrummagers.
“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.
“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,” Du Plessis said.
While Du Plessis and fellow prop Tendai Mtawarira were the only members of the Dunedin pack to have more than 30 caps, the qualified doctor said that inexperience helped create a never-say-die attitude.
“There are some advantages to inexperience, because those players are hungry and will play better than someone who has played a hundred tests and has a ‘been there, done that’ attitude. As they say, a hungry dog hunts best,” Du Plessis said.
Van Graan said it was important the Springboks showed an improvement in Pretoria on Saturday and took another step in their evolution.
“You can always improve and evolve and we started with the base, it’s about finding your feet at this level. But we’ve grown a lot, there’s been a lot of progression, our ball-retention and contesting on the ground is much better. You evolve step-by-step and we hope we take another step on Saturday. Hopefully we can go from a good performance to a great winning performance,” Van Graan said.
The assistant coach also highlighted the need for better defence against a top-class attacking team like Australia.
“The Wallabies are a big threat, especially with their reverse attacking lines, Digby Ioane and Dom Shipperley in particular. We will have to improve our defence and hope our kicking game is spot on.”
Van Graan also said better decision-making on attack would be crucial.
“Some stuff in Dunedin worked well but in these close tests, which they all are in the Rugby Championship, you need special moments from special players to change games, like Bryan Habana’s try. We’re expecting quite a quick game and, against defences that are a lot better at international level, you need to convert your opportunities into points. There were quite a few chances in both Dunedin and Perth that should have been points and it’s about making better decisions,” Van Graan said.
South Africa will name their team on Wednesday, with experienced inside centre Francois Steyn unlikely to be chosen as he was still on crutches on Tuesday after rolling his ankle the previous day.