Planet Rugby

Preview: South Africa v Australia

14th June 2007 23:22

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ruan pienaar

Ruan Pienaar: Looking for the gaps

If the media is to believed, this Springbok side is awesome and the Wallabies are set for annihilation in the opening match of the 2007 Tri-Nations series at Newlands on Saturday.

But this is real Test rugby, and the time for a quick forty points in a half is over.

It is going to take airtight defence, discipline, a will to create scoring opportunities and an ability to convert those opportunities into points in order for either team to record the first victory of the Tri-Nations in what is the first real Test of the southern hemisphere season.

South Africa, as is customary for Jake White's men in the last two years, will be big and bold as they attempt to power their way to victory through forward dominance.

The size and strength of the Bok pack is something to behold.

It is this, combined with the established combinations of the Springboks, that sees them as favourites on Saturday.

Even Wallaby coach John Connolly concedes that the Springboks are in good nick.

"South African rugby is in a pretty good space at the moment, probably in the best shape it's been for some time," said Connolly earlier this week.

Added to the overtures against Australia's chances is the poor record that the Wallabies have when playing in South Africa - they have only ever won one Tri-Nations game on African soil, and that was in Durban in 2000.

Jake White, who has been under a different kind of pressure this week from his employers, is "honoured" by his counterpart's plaudits.

"It's an honour that John [Connolly] has recognised what has been the product of a lot of work and planning," he said.

"I am excited to see what he puts out on Saturday. This is a Wallaby side that showed great composure in coming back from a 17-point deficit against Wales three weeks ago to win the game and that is something you have to respect."

Underpinning that comment is the realisation that this Wallaby side only just managed to beat a second-string Welsh outfit.

But even White, whose side thumped an even weaker English side, conceded that the mid-year Tests hardly represented a worthy yard-stick for his side.

"The Northern Hemisphere sides were weakened and everything that has gone before is irrelevant," he said.

"Now we will be able to judge ourselves against genuine World Cup opposition."

And what the Springboks will be tested on is whether their brutal pack and their game-breaking backs can do the business against real opposition.

The question posed to the Wallabies is whether they can live with the fiercest Springbok pack of recent history.

But a closer inspection to the gold pack reveals that, in fact, all is well in the back five - but perhaps not so in the front row.

Locks Dan Vickerman and Nathan Sharpe can definitely compete with Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, and the loose forward trio of Rocky Elsom, George Smith and Wycliff Palu is one of class. The Springboks should exert some dominance against a weaker Australian front row, however.

The battle out wide is perhaps the most interesting. Despite all their promise, this Springbok backline has the appearance of being over-coached and dependent on a structure to which they are not really suited.

If Matt Giteau is able to run off the Gregan/Larkham combination in full stride, he may just punch a few fatal holes in the Springbok defence.

This is a contest that is set to ask many questions of both sides, and it remains to be seen which side will seize the initiative.

Players to watch:

For South Africa: There can be very little doubt that Ruan Pienaar displays an old-school class that is too rarely seen in the modern game. He glides through gaps and puts others in gaps, always creating time and space for those around him. It is his first start for the Springboks, and he may just be the difference between the teams.

For Australia: In the end, all eyes will be on one of the best players in world rugby - inside centre Matt Giteau. His nose for the gap and his explosive speed can energise the Wallaby backline into producing something that is special and match-winning.

Head to head: There are two intriguing battles that are going to be crucial to the outcome of the game. Will Matt Dunning (Australia) be able to hold out BJ Botha (South Africa) in the scrum? If he does that will negate a key Springbok strength. And how will the Jean de Villiers/Jaque Fourie (South Africa) combination fare in the midfield against Stirling Mortlock and Matt Giteau (Australia)? Both centre pairings are incisive, and the winner of the match might be the team whose centres can both keep out their opposition, and score a few tries in return.

Previous results:

2006: South Africa won 24-16 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg

2006: Australia won 20-18 at Stadium Australia, Sydney

2006: Australia won 49-0 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

2005: South Africa won 22-19 at Subiaco Oval, Perth

2005: South Africa won 22-16 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

2005: South Africa won 33-20 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg

2005: Australia won 12-30 at Stadium Australia, Sydney

2004: South Africa won 23-19 at Kings Park Stadium, Durban

2004: Australia won 30-26 at Subiaco Oval, Perth

2003: Australia won 29-9 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Prediction: Australia will neutralise the brute South African strength. The locals won't be able to coax out those unforced errors that they normally feed off. Australia to surprise us all, and win by ten points or more.

The teams:

South Africa: 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Ashwin Willemse, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Butch James, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp.

Replacements: 16 Gary Botha, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Johann Muller, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Michael Claassens, 21 Wynand Olivier, 22 Francois Steyn

Australia: 15 Julian Huxley, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Stephen Larkham, 9 George Gregan, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Dan Vickerman, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Guy Shepherdson, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Matt Dunning.

Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Al Baxter, 18 Mark Chisholm, 19 Stephen Hoiles, 20 Phil Waugh (vice-captain), 21 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 22 Mark Gerrard.

Date: Saturday, 16 June

Venue: Newlands, Cape Town

Kick-off: 15.00 (13.00 GMT)

Conditions: Sunny, dry, light breeze - max 23°C, min 13°C

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Touch judges: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Hugh Watkins (Wales)

Television match official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Assessor: Tappe Henning (South Africa)

By Chris Waldburger

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