Saturday 21 April 2018

Brittle Boks enter last-chance saloon

Peter Bills, in Brisbane

Have the Springboks played into Australia's hands with their team for this morning's Tri Nations Test in Brisbane?

For a match the South Africans must win to have even a semblance of hope of retaining their title, there are some bewildering selections.

If there is one thing the Wallabies love it is a fast, open game in which they can throw all their dangerous back-line runners into the fray. The looser and more frenzied the action, the better the Australians like it.


So, what have the Springboks done? Chosen speedy No 8 Ryan Kankowski out of position on the flank and picked Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half. It doesn't get much looser than that.

Thus, we are asked to accept that the Springboks' best hope lies in trying to out-run the Australians on a ground where they haven't won since 1971. Frankly, all this beggars belief.

The one thing the Wallabies dislike is being sucked into a tough, grinding slog in which they are faced by a power pack.

But, in fairness to the selectors, the South Africans are coming apart at the seams on this Tri Nations trip thanks to casualties and suspensions.

Bakkies Botha and Jean de Villiers occupy the latter category; Andries Bekker and Jannie du Plessis the former. Right now, the reigning Tri Nations and world champions are close to disarray.

Even more disturbingly, some world-class players -- the likes of Bryan Habana, Pierre Spies, Jaque Fourie and John Smit -- are starting to resemble mere mortals. Springbok fans should be worried big time by this.

Coach Peter de Villiers may hint darkly at what he sees as skulduggery by referees intended to disrupt and defeat the South Africans. But you get the impression that most of the southern hemisphere -- and even some of his own players -- are getting tired of these regular rants.

Nevertheless, Irish referee George Clancy will be under the microscope in this match. He is the third Irish official to referee the South Africans in three weeks. Victor Matfield's strong denunciation of what he called "stupid acts" of indiscipline by his colleagues and their general failure on this trip to swiftly assess the match-day referee and adapt accordingly, are in vivid contrast to De Villiers' preference for hurling accusations at everyone except himself and his team.

However, last night De Villiers "clarified" his statement of accusation 24 hours earlier and said he had never questioned the referees' honesty. Even captain John Smit appeared to offer a contrasting view to that of his coach in discussing the Bakkies Botha fiasco.

But, whatever the truth or otherwise of that, the Springboks know they have only one more chance, today in Brisbane, of seizing any points or pride from this disastrous trip. If they fail, if they go home with three defeats and without a single point from the Tri Nations tour, major questions ought to be asked about just what is going on at the helm of Springbok rugby.

With the World Cup now barely 14 months away, there is no time to lose if any inquest is to throw up important lessons for the future.

As Wallaby lock Nathan Sharpe said last night: "All Test matches are important, but this one especially so. South Africa are a team that is going to be stung by the last two weekends and we are a team that has been building for this game for a month. So, there has been plenty of chat about it."

Much has been made of the Suncorp Stadium factor and the 'Boks even seem to have chosen a team specifically for what they regard as a fast ground. But the Australians aren't so convinced. "It doesn't affect or alter my kicking game," said Sharpe, with heavy sarcasm.

Sharpe thinks the All Blacks made the Springboks look worse than they really are, but the proof of that particular pudding will be in the eating.

If Smit's men lift themselves mentally and physically and glean the rarest of wins in Brisbane, then the Australians may well have been proved correct.


But if the Australians prevail, and they are under desperate pressure to do so with the rampant All Blacks waiting for them in Melbourne next Saturday, then the long journey home to South Africa might just as well be made in a hearse.

The Tri Nations title will be gone and, who knows, maybe even the World Cup next year.

High stakes, then, at Suncorp Stadium? You'd better believe it.

AUSTRALIA -- A Ashley-Cooper; J O'Connor, R Horne, M Giteau, D Mitchell; Q Cooper, W Genia; B Robinson, S Faingaa, S Ma'afu, D Mumm, N Sharpe, R Elsom (capt), D Pocock, R Brown.

SOUTH AFRICA -- Z Kirchner; G Aplon, J Fourie, W Olivier, B Habana; M Steyn, R Pienaar; G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt, BJ Botha, D Rossouw, V Matfield, S Burger, R Kankowski, P Spies.

REF -- G Clancy (Ireland).

Australia v South Africa,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 11.0

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