Springboks, Aussies aim to end differing droughts
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Springboks skipper Jean de Villiers readily highlighted Australia’s strengths ahead of Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash, ranging from South Africa’s winless record at the venue to the recall of Quade Cooper and Israel Folau’s switch to fullback for the Wallabies.
He was more hesitant to expand on South Africa’s advantages: the scrum and huge forward pack that can give them a glut of possession, the absence of Australia captain James Horwill through injury and the fact the Wallabies have lost four of their last five tests.
The Springboks have lost all seven times they’ve played Australia at Suncorp Stadium, but have the ideal chance to break the drought.
“The challenge this time is a really big one in that we don’t have a good record here,” de Villiers said Friday, “but that creates an opportunity where hopefully we can make history.”
South Africa are 2-0 after two rounds after thrashing Argentina at home but then struggling at Mendoza before getting on top late in a gritty 22-17 win over the Pumas.
“It was a poor showing, but 12 months prior to that we drew that (corresponding) game — felt like a loss,” de Villiers said. “So it shows we’ve progressed as a team. The game tomorrow, we need to take the negatives out of that game and turn them into positives and get the right result. ”
Despite the expected new dawn with Ewen McKenzie as coach, Australia is 0-2 in the Rugby Championship after being outplayed twice by the All Blacks.
Cooper, overlooked early in 2013 by previous Australia coach Robbie Deans, is expected to make a difference with his unpredictability in his first test start at flyhalf in almost a year. Folau was moved from wing to fullback to better utilize his strong running game and aerial flair.
Sekope Kepu was elevated to start at tighthead, with McKenzie relying on his adaption to the new scrum rules to shore up Australian rugby’s Achilles heel, while lock Kane Douglas was drafted in late to replace the injured Horwill.
“They’ve got players in there that want to prove a point and that makes them dangerous,” de Villiers said of the Australians. “But we’ve also got a point to prove.”
The downside for Australia of Cooper’s high-risk style is the potential for it to lead to errors or turnovers. And while former rugby league international and Australian Rules football convert Folau was superb at fullback for New South Wales Waratahs in the Super Rugby season, he’s untried at the back in a test match.
“He’s not the perfect player, yet ... maybe,” de Villiers said. “He’s still learning the game in a way. We’ll try to expose that. We’ve got our plans that we’ve made for this.”
De Villiers suggested South Africa could take on the Aussies at their own game, and dispense with the 10-man style of grinding forward exchanges and kicking for field position and points.
“We’ve scored some fantastic tries this year — we’ve been able to work on our counter-attacking and to play off turnovers,” de Villiers said. “We might just surprise you tomorrow.”
But it’s more likely the Springboks will revert to what they do best in a battle of two distinctly different approaches to rugby: rely on their big pack and radar-like kickers to blunt the hit-and-run style of the Australians.
The Wallabies face a massive challenge in the forward battles. The South African pack is expected to dominate the scrums, a weakness in the Australian lineup exploited by the British and Irish Lions in their series-clinching win at Sydney in July and again by the All Blacks last month.
With Horwill joining the long list of injured locks, Douglas was elevated to the starting team and No. 8 Ben Mowan was given the vice-captaincy despite only having five test caps, further eroding the size and experience of the pack.
“Ewen has picked a team who can meet them up front but also run them around,” Kepu said. The Springboks “strength is that they are big boys, but if we can get lower and get under them ... it will be a good contest.”