2018 Rugby Championships
Australia vs South Africa
Date: Saturday, September 8
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 20:00 local, 10:00 GMT, 12:00 SA Time
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
As Test matches go, this one promises to provide for much drama, and no small measure of desperation.
The Wallabies are desperate to win something, anything, as coach Michael Cheika has come under increasingly heavy fire for his selections and style of play. Under his guidance the Wallabies have a 50% win record, with 25 wins out of 50 starts. A series loss to Ireland and two huge defeats against the All Blacks has ramped up the pressure on the coach and his charges.
The South Africans are feeling the heat too.
They come into this game on the back of a 32-19 loss to Argentina in Mendoza two weeks ago. They also have a monkey on their backs, having won just 3 of their last 16 games outside of South Africa. The Springboks will be doubly desperate, both to get their 2018 Rugby Championships challenge back on track, and to rid themselves of the monkey that feeds on those away losses.
Both teams are in similar straits.
Rugby in Australia seems to be dying as the Wallabies struggle to remain competitive in world terms and relevant within their country, as the sport of rugby has lost significant support, and players, during the last number of years. There is a swelling discontent with the mega-pay-packets offered to the top players, while the grass roots of the game are withering. The sport has dropped out of the Top Twenty sports in Australia in terms of both support and TV viewership. The future of the game is looking bleak in Australia and a win or two is desperately needed to rekindle interest amongst the fans. Australians love winners, and a winning Wallaby team would do wonders for the game at home.
South Africa have come through two desperate years under coach Allister Coetzee, sliding down the world rankings at a precipitous rate throughout 2016 and 2017. The slide seems to have been slowed, if not completely stopped and turned around under new coach, Rassie Erasmus, but the team still has a very long way to go.
Erasmus and his charges are working hard to rebuild their entire game, their confidence, and their lost aura, together with their self-respect.
Without a doubt, the Springboks of 2018 are playing better rugby, with more focus and intent than in the previous two years, and the coach is slowly building units and combinations as the weeks pass. He has frequently and vocally expressed that his whole focus is on the Rugby World Cup of 2019 in Japan, and that he is treating the 2018 Test matches as time for experimentation and learning.
Whatever his intent, he needs to keep one eye on his back!
He and his team are given no slack whatsoever back at home. They have to deal with the most demanding and unforgiving fan base in all of the world of sport, and another loss in 2018 will certainly see a tsunami of opprobrium unleashed by the “fans” and the media back at home. Already, a scant 6 months into Erasmus’ reign as coach, there have been ominous rumbles of discontent with the rebuilding process and lack of a 100% winning record.
No doubt a loss to Australia in Brisbane will have the “Doom & Gloom” squad launching into the coach and his team, again.
Both teams will be desperate to show the rugby world that they aren’t soft touches.
Home-ground advantage certainly favours the Wallabies. They have won their last four Tests on the trot in Brisbane, and will take confidence from the fact that they have lost just one of their last nine Tests against the Boks on home soil.
They may also be assisted by the wet weather forecast for Saturday, having trained in similar conditions all week.
The Springboks, on the other hand, have nothing to lose and plenty to gain from an away win, especially in Australia.
Will it be the Springboks, or the Wallabies?
Michael Cheika surprised one and all as he dropped Bernard Foley from the starting flyhalf position and named Kurtley Beale at 10 for Saturday’s Test against South Africa. Beale’s move into the flyhalf berth makes room for Matt Toomua to play inside centre.
Israel Folau returns to the side at full-back after an ankle injury ruled out him out of the second Bledisloe Cup Test in Auckland.
Brumbies lock Rory Arnold gets a start in the second row for his first Test of 2018 ahead of Izack Rodda, who has been moved to the bench.
David Pocock tried hard to defy the odds and a stiff neck to be selected to start in this game. He was initially named in the staring XV, but was withdrawn on Friday morning and replaced in the run-on team by Pete Samu, who was not initially named in the match-day 23. Ned Hanigan remains on the bench.
Cheika has dumped their two most experienced forwards from the bench with 96-Test prop Sekope Kepu and 87-Test lock Rob Simmons both missing out altogether.
The 133kg Taniela Tupou adds weighty impact to the bench, leaving no room for Sekope Kepu.
Folau’s return sees Dane Haylett-Petty move to the wing as Jack Maddocks drops to the bench, with Tom Banks dropping out of the match-day squad altogether.
In the second surprising flyhalf move for this Test, Elton Jantjies will start at fly-half as one of many changes for the Springboks when they take on the Wallabies in Brisbane on Saturday.
Rassie Erasmus has surprised many with his decision to start Jantjies, with Handré Pollard on the bench and Damian Willemse dropping out of the match-day squad altogether. These are some of the 6 changes and one positional shift made by Erasmus as he announced a new-look front row, a reshuffled loose trio, and a different midfield combination in his 23 for Saturday.
Erasmus has included uncapped outside back Cheslin Kolbe on the bench, with the former Blitzbok and Junior Springbok speedster set to make his full Test debut.
In another surprise, Erasmus has benched Malcolm Marx as Bongi Mobinambi starts in the new look front row that sees Steven Kitshoff starting and Frans Malherbe the only survivor of the starting front rows in the previous two Tests. Tendai Mtawarira, Wilco Louw, and Marx are set to play off the bench.
Siya Kolisi returns to the number six jersey after playing on the opposite side of the scrum against the Pumas in Durban and Mendoza. Pieter-Steph du Toit will start in the number seven jersey and Warren Whiteley completes the loose trio at number eight. Francois Louw provides cover off the bench.
The second row features Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert starting with RG Snyman as bench cover.
Elton Jantjies swaps places at fly-half with Handré Pollard, while Faf de Klerk again performing the starting scrum-half job.
The midfield is rotated with a start for Damian de Allende, returning from injury to resume his centre partnership with the recalled Jesse Kriel. Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi and the experienced Willie le Roux complete the rest of the South African backline.
Along with Pollard, Embrose Papier and Cheslin Kolbe are the back division reserves.
There are so many twists and turns in the selections announced by the two coaches that many a pundit has had to rethink their view on how this game will be played.
The double change in starting flyhalves is perhaps the most contentious.
In Australian ranks, Kurtley Beale has long been the Wallabies’ chief playmaker. Bernard Foley has served as the link-man who passed the ball to Beale as quickly as possible, giving the latter as much room as possible to either make or call the plays. Bringing Beale closer to the action in the flyhalf channel might give the Australian playmaker quicker ball, but it also deprives him of some of the time and space he enjoys wider out in the midfield.
Some might suggest that Bernard Foley’s performances have been nothing better than pedestrian so far in 2018, and I would agree with that assessment, his tactical play has been simply to play the ball to Beale and/or Folau, but his goal-kicking has been very reliable and will be missed.
Most of Australia’s structured approach to midfield play has been centred around Beale as the kingpin, the centre-pivot if you will. Changing his role to flyhalf might deprive the Wallabies of some of the drills and moves they have worked so very hard to perfect in 2018. He might find the position a little daunting as he has not played in the 10 jersey since 2014.
The inclusion of Matt Toomua as inside centre does replace Beale’s kicking boot with another educated kicking option, and with a player of an entirely different style to Beale. Where Beale is direct and muscular, Toomua is more of a stepper and jinking runner, although he is no slouch at the direct route either. His tackling is vastly better than Beale’s, who has something of a turnstile reputation. This move might see a return to a more skill-based approach by the Wallaby midfield, although it does mean that an entirely new midfield combination is to be tested in a crucial Test match.
On the South African side of the field we find Elton Jantjies, somehow resurrected from the rugby grave that he has repeatedly dug for himself. Everyone knows that he is brilliant when the game loosens up and his team is playing off the front-foot. Yet his frailty under pressure is legendary. He has proven, time and again, that he rattles the moment the pressure starts to build, and his decision making simply goes out of the window, followed by his tactical accuracy, and then his defence.
Without a doubt, a dominant Springbok pack feeding quick, “hot” ball to Jantjies will facilitate some exciting running options. Given room, he is a superb attacker, but he does need that room!
The jury remains out on whether he can handle the pressure to convert South Africa’s opportunities into scoring moments.
We can be very sure that Michael Hooper and Will Genia will be rushing at Jantjies at every single opportunity, knowing that he has a propensity for failing and folding under such pressure.
It will also be very interesting to see how Jantjies matches up to Beale on defence – statistically two of the worst defenders in the entire Super Rugby competition – both will be under the spotlight this weekend.
The changes to the Springbok midfield introduce a wholly different dimension to that seen in the previous two Rugby Championships Tests. Damian de Allende was the form 12 in South African rugby for most of 2018, and brings more than just the crash-ball style running of Andre Esterhuizen to the position. Whilst able and willing to bash it up when needed, de Allende brings footwork and stepping to the position, as well as some clever distribution skills. He adds an over-the-ball dimension too. His defence has been outstanding.
Jesse Kriel has been one of the better outside centres of 2018, running direct lines and straightening the attack rather than the sideways movement that plagued him in the previous two years. He brings a muscular physicality to the position, although he is sometimes a bit selfish with the ball in hand.
The De Allende/Kriel combination provided for much excitement and promise when they played together for the first time back in 2015. The burgeoning combination was split apart by Heyneke Meyer during the 2015 World Cup campaign, and was not favoured by Allister Coetzee in the two dismal years when he was in charge. This Test provides an opportunity for the two to build on the foundations that promised so much.
In the back three, the teams have diametrically different combinations. The Australians field their “go to” attacking option, Israel Folau, who will look to carry the ball wide and set free the muscle of Marika Koroibete and the straight running Dane Haylett-Petty. Most of their 2018 backline plays revolved around Beale getting the ball to Folau as quickly as possible, allowing him to run onto the ball at pace where his weight and power could carry him through the first line of defenders. The alternative play was almost invariably the “trap” of running a midfield switch play with either of the two wings.
Koroibete is a muscular finisher, but he needs his team-mates to work him into space so that he can build the head of steam that makes him difficult to stop.
Israel Folau also brings his impressive aerial game into this Test, and we can expect the Wallaby playmakers to test the Springbok back three with the high ball at every opportunity.
Haylett-Petty is a journeyman wing who is very good on the counter-punch and a superior cover defender due to his fullback roots.
The South African back three feature the wily running and play-making of Willie le Roux and two of the quicker wings in the game. Both wings have shown a willingness to take on their opponents on the outside as well as on the cut-back. Neither are overly physical, relying on pace and footwork as their primary weapon. All three Springboks are brave under the high ball, although le Roux has a penchant for taking his eye off the ball as he starts to look for counter-attacking opportunities before he has actually caught the ball!
The South African wings are rookies with much to learn, especially about their defensive alignment and maintaining their channel. Both tend to drift inwards on defence rather than staying wide. The Aussies will be looking for opportunities to test the wide defence.
Both fullbacks are of the counter-attacking variety, with Folau as the primary ball carrier and le Roux as the creative playmaker. Le Roux has a more educated tactical boot, and his clearance kicks are better than those of the Australian.
Folau favours his right foot, so tends to drift to his left on defence to give himself as much opportunity as possible to use the stronger boot, which can open up space on his right. Clever tactical kicks can catch him out of position and make him turn and chase, not a great strength of his game.
However, his great strength is counter-attacking with the ball kicked straight onto him. The Springboks will have to direct their tactical kicks away from him as much as possible, and their kick-chasers will need to harry him at every opportunity.
Both teams feature strong kick-chasers, with the South African wings using their pace to contest the ball coming down. The Aussies like to unleash Folau as their primary chaser.
At half-back both teams feature players who can change the flow of the game in an instant. Will Genia brings and old, experienced head and superior tactical thinking, while Faf de Klerk brings a quicker, more opportunistic approach. Both are brave defenders, with De Klerk happy to take on the biggest and strongest without hesitation.
Turning to the forwards.
The scrums will be interesting, especially as the South Africans have finally decided to start with Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi alongside Frans Malherbe in the front row. This is a powerful scrummaging trio who will look to bring enormous pressure onto the Wallaby starting front row of Allan Alaalatoa, Tatafu Polota-Nau, and Scott Sio. All eyes will be on how the Wallabies stand up to the Springbok pressure. So far in 2018, the Aussies have been fairly consistent on their own ball, and the South Africans will be looking to reverse that trend. Scott Sio has been guilty of some scrummaging techniques that might attract the opprobrium of the referee.
The South African bench is perhaps overall the strongest front-row bench in world rugby at the moment, with the Beast Mtawarira, Malcolm Marx, and Wilco Louw all perfectly capable of starting Tests against anyone. The Wallabies do have the undoubted raw power of Taniela Tupou waiting on the bench to come and stabilise the scrum if necessary, with Folau Fainga’a, and Tom Robertson perhaps not quite of the quality of the Springbok bench.
The Springbok second row features the power of Etzebeth and the mongrel of Mostert, with RG Snyman to come later in the game if needed. They face off against the towering Rory Arnold in his first start in 2018, and Adam Coleman in the lineouts. Mostert has been the king of lineouts throughout the Super Rugby series, and is also the primary lineout caller for the Springboks. The South Africans have the added benefit of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Warren Whiteley adding to their lineout options, while the Wallabies are fielding just Lukhan Tui as a third option in the lineouts.
We can guess that the South Africans will have noted the Australian’s wobbly lineouts in the first Bledisloe Cup match and will be targeting the Aussie throws, with special attention paid to Coleman who has tended to get a trifle distracted when his lineouts are opposed.
The real battle will be for the ball on the ground and at the breakdowns.
The loss of David Pocock is a massive blow to the Aussies as they would have taken note of Rassie Erasmus’ decision not to field a real fetcher in his loose trio, and to bench Malcolm Marx, their primary turnover specialist. With Pocock at his best, it almost seemed that Erasmus was conceding the ball on the ground to the Aussies and looking to take them on in the tackle.
Without Pocock, the Springbok job has become somewhat easier. They will still need to neutralise the Aussie challenge over the ball in order to dictate the pace and direction of the game, but countering Tui and Samu is do-able. Michael Hooper has tended to play off the ball so far in 2018, and he may be forced into a primary fetching role after Pocock’s withdrawal. This will slow his defensive efforts and wide ranging game somewhat.
The Springboks are still playing a back row that prefers to play off the ball rather than to the ball. Siya Kolisi is on his preferred openside, yet he himself has admitted that fetching is not his speciality. Pieter-Steph du Toit brings real grunt to the blindside , but is not a specialist fetcher, preferring to play the open field and defensive roles. Warren Whiteley has no breakdown game at all.
It will be interesting to see if, and when, Erasmus exchanges Marx for Mbonambi, and when Francois Louw is deployed. With the weather suggesting a slower, wet field, Louw is well suited to a battle in the trenches but is perhaps not needed if the game is open and running.
Handré Pollard has looked just a little out of sorts in the first two games of the Rugby Championships, and a bit of a rest on the bench is perhaps all he needs to banish the kicking yips that have plagued him of late. He is every bit the general with an eye for space and opportunity. His defensive organisation and his own tackling are superior to those of the starting Elton Jantjies. If the Springbok wheels are wobbling we may see Pollard on the field much sooner than expected.
Suncorp Stadium is usually a venue for running rugby, but rain is expected all day before the kick-off on Saturday, and the game may become a bit of an arm-wrestle amongst the forwards. Here the Springboks seem to have a distinct edge with their powerful locks and big ball-carrying front row.
There are so many variables and unfathomables going into this game that it makes a prediction difficult.
Beale at flyhalf for the first time in four years, Jantjies with his frailties. No designated fetcher in the Springbok team, no David Pocock for the Wallabies. A reengineered midfield for both teams. Israel Folau back to provide the aerial challenge on the kick-offs and tactical kicks, Dyantyi and Mapimpi providing super kick chasing pace. A revamped Springbok starting front row, the Wallabies with the power of Tupou on the bench.
Home-ground advantage in Brisbane versus the away-game monkey on the Springbok back.
Depth on the reserve bench.
Desire, anger, fear, desperation.
They all contribute to the thinking.
For me, the Springboks, barring that glitch in Mendoza, have looked the better team of the two all year, which brings me to calling it for the Springboks.
South Africa, by 9 points.
Australia – revised: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Will Genia, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Folau Fainga’a, 17 Tom Robertson, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Ned Hanigan, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Bernard Foley, 23 Jack Maddocks.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Rudolph Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Cheslin Kolbe