South Africa and Australia were predicted to come into this one with a fight for second place on their hands, but sadly for one nation and gladly for the other, the reality is far from that. The beginning of Ewen McKenzie’s reign as Wallabies coach has not heralded the change in fortunes – or playing style – many on the emerald isle were hoping for, as his team have registered just one win this championship, by the skin of their teeth at home to Argentina (although it’s fair to say they could have won that game more comfortably had they not conceded late on). South Africa, meanwhile, have looked ruthlessly powerful and can have genuine optimism about turning the mighty All Blacks over when they visit next weekend, and even winning the tournament should they get a bonus point this weekend and New Zealand fail to do so in La Plata. All to play for, then.
So much has been made of the officiating in South Africa’s last game against New Zealand that we won’t delve into that here. What is categorically accurate, however, is that the Springboks brought a raw physicality to that game that has seldom been seen on the rugby pitch. Any other team in the world would have been blown away by it, and even the All Blacks were rattled. That is what they will be looking to replicate this weekend against an Australia team that has struggled to deal with such a power game in the past. Having already won by a comfortable 38-12 margin Down Under, complacency is always a danger – but you get the sense that Heyneke Meyer wouldn’t allow that, and has moulded a thoroughly grounded group of players.
Obviously, McKenzie must be given time to prove himself at this level – but even so, he would not have been expecting such a torrid start. They have not truly looked like threatening either New Zealand or South Africa yet, and their drubbing at home to the latter team was particularly humiliating. The new scrum laws have hurt them, no longer allowing them to perhaps bend the laws slightly to hide their shortcomings in this area. The off-field issues have not helped, and banning James O’Connor after his latest misdemeanour seems like too little too late – whether that’s true or not, he plays no part this weekend.
All eyes on
All the post match chat has centred on Bismarck du Plessis after the controversy in the last round, but as he is rested this week his replacement Adriaan Strauss has a huge role to play. Bismarck will always be one of South Africa’s favourite sons, but Strauss was arguably the form hooker coming into the tournament after having excelled in the June internationals and leading his Cheetahs side to a surprisingly excellent Super Rugby season. He is dynamic with a diligent engine – as good an understudy as you could wish for.
It might get a bit boring to keep singling him out, but Israel Folau has looked a class apart at times in this Wallaby team. He continues at fullback this week, and Australia will need all his creative spark if they are to nullify the power game of South Africa. With Zane Kirchner his opposite man, he can expect plenty of ball to be kicked his way, and Folau’s brilliance in running that ball back may well be Australia’s best chance of crossing the whitewash.
Head-to-head: Tendai Mtawarira v Ben Alexander
The new scrummaging laws have not been kind to Australia. Last week against Argentina they lost four of their nine scrums on their own ball – a game which Alexander started. He was also shown up horribly in the final Lions test of the summer by Alex Corbisiero. This weekend, then, he will be ecstatic to be coming up against one of the most destructive looseheads in world rugby – Tendai Mtawarira, better known as the Beast. Amazingly, South Africa are yet to lose a scrum on their own put in. The Beast has started and played most of all of their games. Nothing more really needs to be said about the scale of the task facing Alexander this weekend in Cape Town.
It’s virtually impossibly to see past a home win here. The Wallabies have been unable to cope with the power of South Africa and New Zealand so far, and the drubbing they received at home hardly stands them in good stead to come to Newlands and get a win. If they can, by some miracle, gain some parity up front, they have a chance of running the Springboks ragged in the backs – but that is so unlikely an idea at the moment it barely warrants mentioning. South Africa by 20.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images