Wallabies, Springboks limp into Suncorp

Date published: September 9 2016

We’re not unfamiliar with the Wallabies facing the Springboks and one of the sides licking their wounds after a tough run. But both of them? Now that is different.

Australia have lost their last six Tests, but to be fair three apiece have come against the number one and number two sides in the world, New Zealand and England, and the injury list particularly in the backs has been unkind to Michael Cheika.

Who at the start of the year expected Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty to be the Wallabies’ starting wingers? Very few; not down to their ability to play Test rugby – both have rightly been rewarded for their form – but because neither are really wingers by trade.

And to continue the trend of unexpected combinations, the 10-12 axis of Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley will be under scrutiny yet again.

Having two playmakers is nothing new for Australia but Foley isn’t the answer at 12, and absolutely not the underpar version of Foley we’ve seen in 2016, perhaps down to fatigue. It was Foley and Kurtley Beale’s combination which made the Wallabies such an attacking force at the Rugby World Cup, dovetailing persistently enough to leave England’s defenders asking for someone to pass the smelling salts.

But with no Beale, or Matt Giteau, or Matt Toomua, and with Kyle Godwin yet to kick on, Cooper and Foley it is.

Of course they might do better with some cleaner ball off the lineout, with Kane Douglas and Adam Coleman retained in the second row to try and provide just that after struggling by New Zealand – this time aided by Dean Mumm’s inclusion at six in another re-jig that sees Scott Fardy drop out of the 23 entirely.

Very little about the Wallabies this year has felt coherent or in-tune, reflected by further tinkering by Cheika and more players playing out of position.

Pair that with the punishing loss in Sydney to the All Blacks and it’s been a rough year. And yet Australia are still favourites to win at Suncorp.

That’s partly down to an impressive record in Brisbane, where Australia have beaten South Africa eight times out of the last nine meetings, but predominantly because despite winning three out of their last six Tests, including a series against Ireland, this South African side cannot be trusted yet to win big matches.

A fresh midfield following the loss to Argentina feels more of a reactive move from Allister Coetzee than a winning formula, and the clock is ticking for Elton Jantjies, with Pat Lambie back in action in the Currie Cup, to try and adapt to the Coetzee game-plan as well as he can if he wants to hold onto the shirt throughout the tournament and beyond. David Pocock and Michael Hooper will be pumped up to hunt him down.

The dramatic comebacks against Ireland and Argentina really aren’t enough to disguise this side’s list of issues.

South Africa have the talent but it is not being applied in the right way both tactically and down to a lack of confidence, which combined with inexperience in certain areas creates a problem.

Adriaan Strauss was right on the money when he admitted on Friday that his side were a work in progress. Coetzee was not when he told Netwerk24:

“The Boks will never lose their aura. If any team believes that, it is doing so at its own peril. Bok rugby will always remain a symbol of excellence.”

Individuals in that Springboks XV might be imposing, with Eben Etzebeth leading the way, but based on this year, that certainly isn’t true of South Africa as a team. That aura has to be regained.

Winning at Suncorp would be a mighty first step towards achieving that, and would also peak interest levels in a fixture that should have a box office appeal. Instead after each team’s respective woes this year, it all feels a little deflated.

by Ben Coles