Expert Witness: Rugby Champs

Date published: August 14 2014

Expert Witness is back for the Rugby Championship as we welcome former SA captain Corné Krige to share his views.

Expert Witness is back for the duration of the Rugby Championship as we welcome former Springbok captain Corné Krige to share his views.

The third edition of the expanded version of the southern hemisphere's annual showdown is lining up to be a fascinating contest as the Wallabies and Springboks fancy their chances of wrestling the trophy away from the All Blacks.

But before the competition has even kicked off, those chances have been dealt a few hefty blows with a loss of some key personnel to injuries.

“The fact that the guys are playing so much rugby is obviously a contributing factor. Instead of making Super Rugby shorter, they've made it longer. To have an international break in the middle of the Super Rugby season just makes no sense,” said Krige, who spent five years doing the hard graft in the trenches for the Stormers.

“From a South African perspective, I really believe all the injuries – for the Stormers especially – are because we're very defensively orientated. The more you defend, more chances there are for you to get injured, as opposed to teams who look to attack more.”

Does that mean there should be a change at national level? There has been a lot of criticism aimed at the Boks for their conservative style of play but Krige reckons Heyneke Meyer is on the right track.

“South Africa's advantage has always been that we do have big men so I believe South Africans should base our game around physicality and making a physical battle out of the games we play,” he explained.

“Having said that, I don't think it should be to the detriment of the skills that we have in the backline. We shouldn't play a physical game at all costs and exclude talented guys like Willie le Roux. That's where we need to balance things out.

“I think Heyneke's gameplan for a wet World Cup in England is 100 percent correct, so he'll continue to pick the right men to execute that gameplan.

“It's about that balance. In 2007, when we had the opportunity, we took the ball wide – Bryan Habana's try-scoring tally bears testament to that. When the opportunity is there you need the skill and confidence to took it wide.”

The Springboks will be hoping to do just that this weekend as they open their campaign against los Pumas at Loftus Versfeld, where a dry track should offer an ideal opportunity to allow the backs to stretch their legs.

“I think South Africa will be hoping to get five points before tackling the All Blacks or Wallabies,” said the former Springbok captain.

“Success breeds confidence so it's hugely important that we don't just win against Argentina but give them a proper hiding and get that confidence before going to Australia and New Zealand.”

With no specialist outside centre in the Springbok squad, it remains to be seen if the SA backline will click from square one. Meyer has insisted that skipper Jean de Villiers will only play at 12 from now on, meaning that Damian De Allende could make his Test debut out of position.

“It is a concern but if you are going to make those changes, a year out from the World Cup, they need to be done now, not in the few months ahead of the event,” commented Krige.

“Everyone will forgive Meyer if he doesn't get it right now, but wins next year. Remember Jake White lost the Tri-Nations before the World Cup by experimenting 'in preparation'. So rather do it now and have a settled team next year.

“I rate Juan de Jongh, he has a phenomenal step, but it might be that Heyneke is looking towards other bigger players with next year in mind. Hopefully Juan gets a chance to get back into the squad and prove his worth at that level.”

Krige admits however that Argentina, under new head coach Daniel Hourcade, will not roll over easily, despite the absence of veteran forwards like Patricio Albacete.

“They're always very difficult opponents to play against because they too are very physical,” explained the ex-Northampton Saints flanker.

“A new coach often brings a new energy to the environment. Whenever a team has had the same players for a long time, complacency can kick in and when you clean house, there will be a breath of fresh air and they'll be raring to go.”

Moving on the Saturday's opening Bledisloe Clash, Krige as surprised as anyone to see Kurtley Beale named at fly-half for the Wallabies having played the entire Super Rugby season at inside centre.

“To pick Beale at 10 is very brave,” he said.

“I think he's an unbelievable player with incredible skill – he can play anywhere in the backline – but he seems a bit all over the place. In a fly-half you need a meticulous guy, who is going to be pin-point accurate in his execution.

“That was one of the issues with Quade Cooper. He was absolutely brilliant one minute and diabolical the next. You need a solid fly-half and Bernard Foley was that guy.”

Moving Adam Ashley-Cooper back to midfield from the wing got the thumbs up though.

“Tevita Kuridrani is a really good player but Ashley-Cooper had an amazing Super Rugby Final. He's a great straight runner with a very good hand off, so he's very difficult to handle in their style of play.”

The Aussies are bubbling with confidence after a successful Super Rugby season, and while franchise form does necessarily translate into national form, the self belief it brings is invaluable.

“Confidence makes a huge difference at Test level, and their Super Rugby success will definitely give them that,” said Krige, who played seven Tests against Australia.

“The combination of so many talented individuals could make for a formidable team. They've got real game breakers, as always, so if they can compete physically up front and at the break down they're definitely in with a shout.”

But with three hookers already ruled out, including their best two players, that infamous soft underbelly could once again be exposed.

“You wouldn't want your third-best hooker to scrum against Bismarck du Plessis, would you?”

“Having a strong hooker is key in Test match rugby, so it'll be a very difficult obstacle for them to overcome.

“I'm not sure that they can match the All Blacks up front. Wycliff Palu will be key as a ball carrier and Michael Hooper has had a phenomenal season – he has to get the better of Richie McCaw.”

Some sectors of the Australian press would have you believe that New Zealand are ripe for the picking and questions have been raised over the Kiwi selections amongst their opensides, as Sam Cane is preferred to Matt Todd and Richie McCaw battles regular injuries.

“New Zealand are obviously always difficult to beat but with that world record beckoning – 18 in a row – they'll be even more difficult to stop,” commented Krige.

“The only way Australia are going to do that is if that can match them physically at ruck time. If they can do that they really have the game breakers in the backline like Folau and Ashley-Cooper that can make the difference.