The Wallabies are on a six-game losing run which adds significance to the already tasty encounter between Australia and a Springboks side in patchy form
By Alex Shaw
Rugby is a results business and if those results fall below challenging for titles and championships for the Springboks and Wallabies, it simply isn’t good enough.
Coaches can lose their jobs, players can be cast out into the international wilderness and expectant fan bases can rise up in revolt. Unfortunately for both South Africa and Australia, these are all very real possibilities over the coming weeks, as New Zealand look all but certain to wrap up this year’s The Rugby Championship with games to spare.
Saying that, don’t underestimate the importance of the clash between the Springboks and Wallabies at Suncorp this weekend. Pride, world ranking and releasing the pressuer are all on the line and all three are desperately required by both nations.
The hosts, Australia, have lost six tests on the bounce, starting with their Rugby World Cup final loss to New Zealand last year and more recently back-to-back Bledisloe Cup fixtures at the beginning of The Rugby Championship. Sandwiched between those was a 3-0 whitewash by England, who toured Australia in June.
Wallaby coach Michael Cheika is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place. Much of the side that took Australia through to the 2015 RWC final have failed to replicate that form this year, some have struggled with injuries and where Cheika has brought veterans back into the fold, the players have looked out of place in test rugby.
The three losses to New Zealand have hurt the pride of the Australian team and supporting public and even acknowledging that the All Blacks are comfortably the best side in test rugby right now, the gulf in quality displayed in the two side’s two most recent matches is unpalatable for Australian fans. Even against England, where the Wallabies did manage to keep the scorelines closer, England were comfortably the better side and good value for all three victories.
This home test against South Africa gives Cheika an opportunity to showcase that his side is not as bad as it has looked over the last few months and that there is a core of players there that can be built around and used as the foundation for Australia to push back up the global hierarchy.
One area of the Wallabies to come in for serious criticism has been the structure of the team’s back row. The two-loosies approach of fielding both David Pocock and Michael Hooper has been labelled as ineffective, even after the pair soared at last year’s RWC. Their inclusion does limit Australia’s options at the lineout and it’s here where the Wallabies have been shredded by opposing teams of late.
Both England and New Zealand enjoyed complete superiority in the air against Australia and this has inevitably heaped pressure upon hooker Stephen Moore and second rows Kane Douglas, Rob Simmons and Adam Coleman. With the ‘Pooper’ pairing in the back row, it’s difficult for Australia to use behemoth lock Will Skelton, due to him not being a specialist lineout jumper, and they miss his ability to break the gain line.
Cheika and co need to ensure their lineout is a solid platform for them to build off this weekend or the Springboks, even for all their current ails, will be able to disrupt the Wallabies before they even get going. Douglas and Coleman have been retained in the engine room but Dean Mumm has been drafted in on the blindside to try and remedy the set-piece malady.
Then there is the quandary of the Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley axis. Both are supremely talented individuals who have thrived for the Wallabies at one point or other in time, but rarely, if ever, together.
Australia have a habit of ‘hiding’ players in defence whose tackling or defensive awareness is not quite at the level you need in test rugby and it’s a tactic that has worked well for them. Both Foley and Cooper have fallen into that category previously but now, with both on the field, it becomes more of an issue. The All Blacks exploited it in Wellington and the onus on Cheika will be to ensure that doesn’t happen again this week, lest the Wallabies face further misery, this time at the hands of South Africa.
For all the pouring of cold water on the Wallabies, things are far from rosy for the Springboks, also.
They laboured to a 2-1 series victory over Ireland in June, before splitting the home and away fixtures with Argentina at the beginning of the championship. It is a mark of the expectations in South Africa that coach Allister Coetzee is already under pressure, despite winning more games than he has lost since taking charge.
Admittedly, Ireland (6th) and Argentina (7th) do not pose the same threats that England (2nd) and New Zealand (1st) do, per World Rugby’s official rankings, and that’s why Coetzee desperately needs to put down a marker in Brisbane.
With RWC 2019 seeding to be decided in 2017, games like these carry much more than just pride for teams on the brink of moving from a top to second seed. South Africa are currently ranked third, with Australia in fourth, but the gap between the two sides is not overly sizeable and the Wallabies could leapfrog South Africa with a solid victory this weekend. There is a bit of cushion to Wales in 5th and the rest of the second seed teams, but it could quickly be bridged in the end of year tests.
Much of the backlash to the Springboks’ recent 26-24 loss in Argentina was minimised due to the news that Coetzee’s recently appointed captain, Adriaan Strauss, would be retiring from international rugby at the end of 2016. It’s an announcement that has sent more flak Coetzee’s way for naming a player captain who is intent on retiring, but it has given the Boks a little more breathing space than they would usually have after a loss like that.
Impressive performances from the likes of Ruan Combrinck and Tendai Mtawarira have offered moments of hope, but that reality is that it’s been a mixed bag from many. Elton Jantjies, Warren Whiteley and Faf de Klerk have flickered, but not consistently, and ultimately the side lacks the power to be the 15-man enforcer that it once was and doesn’t currently have the raft of skill sets (or at least the confidence to utilise them) to play the all-court game.
For South Africa, identifying the direction they want to move in as a team, both in regards to playing style and player combinations, is critical during this TRC. The fans won’t accept losses in the meantime, however, and that is making Coetzee’s job an even more difficult one. The All Blacks, the kings of succession, have little trouble filtering in new players alongside experienced options, but with the injuries, retirements and exodus of players, both old and young, to Europe that the Springboks are having to endure, it’s no easy task.
Can South Africa win in Brisbane, blood a new centre combination of Juan de Jongh and Jesse Kriel, play a style of rugby that both suits them and appeals to fans, all the while satisfying racial quotas? That’s the all-but-impossible task ahead of Coetzee this weekend.
Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, the Springboks have also got to find a new captain for next year, one that they believe can lead them through to the 2019 RWC.
With both teams suffering through a myriad of on and off-field issues, their pride in shatters and a wooden spoon to desperately try and avoid, the clash at Suncorp between the Wallabies and Springboks this week could well be the game of the championship.
Australia v South Africa (11.05am GMT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Australia: Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Samu Kerevi, Bernard Foley, Reece Hodge , Quade Cooper , Will Genia , David Pocock Michael Hooper , Dean Mumm , Adam Coleman , Kane Douglas, Sekope Kepu , Stephen Moore (c), Scott Sio
Reps (one to be omitted): Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Lopeti Timani, Sean McMahon, Nick Phipps, Tevita Kuridrani, Drew Mitchell
South Africa: Johan Goosen, Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel, Juan de Jongh, Francois Hougaard, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk; Warren Whiteley, Oupa Mahoje, Francois Louw, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss (c), Tendai Mtawarira
Reps: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Trevor Nyakane, Franco Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jaco Kriel, Morne Steyn, Lionel Mapoe