Once you’ve seen through all the smoke and mirrors, and looked past all the scandal mongering, Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash at Newlands is lining up to be cracker.
Second place in the world rankings and second place in the Rugby Championship standings are on the line as the Springboks look to make amends for missing two golden opportunities on the road.
With rain having marred most of the games in this year’s tournament, the forecast for dry weather this weekend has been welcomed by everyone involved. And with Heyneke Meyer’s team promising to play with positive intent against a Wallabies side who are always keen to have a crack with ball in hand, the ingredients are there for a classic.
What a shame then that the prospect of fun in the sun has almost been overshadowed by the so-called ‘race quota’ controversy that has surrounded the selection of Oupa Mohoje. It’s a great story for selling newspapers and luring clicks, but it doesn’t carry any real value.
Headlines claiming Mohoje was a “shock selection” ahead of Schalk Burger were either just stirring the pot or simply based on ignorance. Exactly how is the selection of guy who has been in the Bok squad since day one over a guy who was playing in Japan on Friday a “shock”?
The fact that this ‘controversy’ got more traction in the Australian press than from the local journos is a story in itself. Let’s hope we don’t have to go through the same palaver every time a non-white player is selected for the Boks because, personally, I find it difficult to stomach. It’s hard enough to make it to this level, so it’s incredibly unfair when a player is asked to comment on whether his selection might have something to do with the colour of his skin.
Back to the rugby, shall we?
This is likely to be a seminal weekend for both sides as the outcome will go a long way determining their future paths.
South Africa have the most to lose. Defeat, which would represent a third-straight loss for the Boks, will severely dent the confidence of a side that is capable of great things. Although they were lucky to win in Salta, they really should have won in Perth. They could have won in Wellington, but they must win in Cape Town.
“We were so close to winning three games on the road which has never happened before,” said Meyer earlier this week.
“It’s so close for us between a great season and an average season.
“We have to win these next two home games to get the momentum going. I’m very happy with the week training-wise and hopefully it’s a dry field, we haven’t played on a dry field for some time and that will allow us to show what we can do on attack.”
For all the talk about the Boks’ evolution into a more balanced attacking unit, they will base their hope for success on Saturday around a dominant set piece. It’s no coincidence that, after a below-par start against the Pumas, South Africa’s upswing in form in Australasia coincided with the return of Victor Matfield along with Eben Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira regaining full match fitness.
Etzebeth has notched up more line-out steals (five) than any other player in this year’s Rugby Championship, which is bad news considering Australia have won just 77 percent of their line-outs so far, the worst rate in the tournament. South Africa, meanwhile, probably have the best line-out in the world game when it’s on song.
Ewen McKenzie’s team will be under less pressure considering their poor record in the Mother City but the Wallaby coach knows if his side are to go on to bigger and better things, they must start showing greater consistency. A first win in Cape Town in over two decades will help repair the damage done by the beating taken at Eden Park.
“Obviously with the World Cup being played in England, it is important for us to win offshore. You have to win offshore to win the World Cup, by definition,” said McKenzie on Thursday.
“We’ve been doing it our way. We were reasonably successful at home this year, now we want to win on the road. We have one of the least experienced groups the Wallabies have brought to this country in recent times, so a win will be a notable achievement.
“The set-piece is always an important area of focus for us, even more so when you play South Africa, and we know the outcome of the scrum and line-out will be crucial to the final result.”
Australia also haven’t won in South Africa since edging the result in Durban in 2011. If the Boks are able to get their rolling maul moving – that seems set to depend on what referee Nigel Owens considers a legal sacking of the maul – it’s hard not to see that record extended.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Having started the year playing Varsity Cup, Oupa Mohoje’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric (the nickname ‘Oupa’ was given by his rugby coach aged nine because of a white streak in his hair). A specialist blindside, who offers an excellent line-out option, Meyer has compared Mohoje to Willem Alberts due to his big frame and strong ball-carrying ability. Unlike the man he replaces, Francois Louw, Mohoje is not a fetcher but his skill set brings balance to the Bok back row. Given that he has started just five games as a professional player (!) it’s understandable that Meyer didn’t throw him into the deep end overseas but, having already impressed with his physicality and athleticism in June, the 24-year-old has a chance to lay down a marker in what is a very competitive position in South Africa. Cobus Reinach is set to make his Springbok debut at the same venue as his late father did almost 30 years ago. Beyond the special story, Reinach is one to watch because many believe that he is the one scrum-half in South Africa who can deliver the quick ball that Meyer so desires for his backline.
For Australia: Hooker Saia Fainga’a will make his first Test start in four years. The 27-year-old got the nod to start ahead of Reds team-mate James Hanson based on the strength of his set-piece work but there is no overlooking the fat that he is essentially Australia’s sixth-choice hooker (and the fifth man to wear the jinxed number 2 jersey in eight games). After riding pine for most of his international career, and most of this year at Super rugby level, Fainga’a says his hunger to impress has never been greater as he gets a rare chance to start. Out wide, vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper makes a timely return as the most experienced back in the Wallaby side. He’s a game breaker and his experience will be invaluable.
Head-to-head: The soundbite of the week goes to recalled Brumbies wing Joe Tomane, who said that “the Bok back three has pace to burn, and as you know, speed kills.” When pressed to explain what the Wallabies had to offer in reply, he simply said “Israel”. While the platform for success will be laid up front, both teams are hoping to delivery the knock-out blow from the back. Israel Folau has made more carries (48) and beaten more defenders (17) than any other player in this year’s edition of the Rugby Championship while Willie le Roux has been the key element in South Africa’s renewed ambition to attack with ball in hand. They both should have plenty of opportunities to shine.
2014: Australia won 24-23, Perth
2013: South Africa won 28-8, Cape Town
2013: South Africa won 38-12, Brisbane
2012: South Africa won 31-8, Pretoria
2012: Australia won 26-19, Perth
2011: Australia won 11-9, Wellington
2011: Australia won 14-9, Durban
2011: Australia won 39-20, Sydney
2010: Australia won 41-39, Bloemfontein
2010: South Africa won 44-31, Pretoria
2010: Australia won 30-13, Brisbane
2009: Australia won 21-6, BrisbanePrediction: Australia have never won at Newlands during the professional era – losing six times – but perhaps too much has been made of that stat because the average score between these sides in Cape Town is 17-14. South Africa were the better side in Perth but some poor game management at the end essentially cost them a chance of taking the Championship title, so they’ll be keen to prove a point. In front of a partisan crowd, the Wallabies are likely to struggle up front. South Africa by ten points.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handr