New Zealand may have this year’s Tri-Nations already wrapped up but there are still three games to be played, and for Robbie Deans and Peter de Villiers – two coaches both under a significant amount of pressure – this weekend offers the chance to answer some critics.
Starting with Australia, the return of Quade Cooper shifts Matt Giteau to inside centre, leaving Anthony Faingaa on the bench. The Aussie backline as a result looks a lot more solid: the experience of Giteau and Ashley-Cooper in the centres gives them a good chance of putting players through the gaps, with Giteau’s dexterity and Ashley-Cooper’s x-factor.
The Aussie pack has acquitted itself well but it still looks understrength, particularly at tighthead prop, where Salesi Ma’afu doesn’t seem to be Test quality, and the absence of Al Baxter there is telling.
The back row has performed well. Richard Brown had a nightmare game against the All Blacks a few weeks ago but he is strong enough to bounce back. As for David Pocock, if you don’t know how good a player he is then what have you been watching? Expect him to be chomping at the bit against what is for me the best back row in the world. Have the Aussies got enough to go up to the Highveld and pull off a victory? They are certainly underdogs.
South Africa’s team for this weekend is excellent on paper. Out go the unlucky Juan de Jongh and Gio Aplon, and they really are unlucky after their performances against the All Blacks. In comes mystery man Frans Steyn, and depending on whether you listen to his club Racing Metro or the Springboks, he’s either unable to walk or fully fit, whilst Jaque Fourie returns from a four week ban to come in at outside centre.
With Juan Smith coming back last week, the team has a real 2007 vintage about it, and what that means is that this is a side full of international experience. Smith’s return last week after a long time out with injury was great to see – he truly is one of the world’s top players in his position. Frans Hougaard had a good first start at 9 last week, but Morne Steyn looks somewhat off-colour, and will have to raise his game with the elusive Cooper running at him at 10.
Also important to note is that Saturday will be the 100th cap for a South African legend, Victor Matfield. After John Smit’s heartache last week, missing the tackle that led to the All Blacks’ winning try, it would be tragic for something similar to happen the Blue Bulls captain. But you get the feeling that running out at his home ground of Loftus Versfeld that that will not happen. His consistency and excellence over the years has been unwavering, and whenever he retires he will join the likes of Eales and Johnson as one of the great second rows and captains of all time.
Two teams under pressure, but home advantage will be telling. South Africa by 10.
By Ben Coles