So…after all the hype, all the build-up, all the punditry before kickoff in last weekend’s Bledisloe Cup encounter at Eden Park, what we got was a comfortable 30-14 victory for the All Blacks, further cementing their status as World Cup favourites.
And given the below par performances on such stars the Wallabies rely on as Quade Cooper, one can only assume that Robbie Deans’ men simply aren’t good enough to match their cross-Tasman rivals and thus should be written off, with a host nation triumph at the World Cup a virtual certainty.
Nah, I’m not buying it either.
This World Cup warm-up period is nothing less than a six/seven week game of poker between the twenty nations taking part. And though many of the teams have good hands, they’re keeping them close to their chest until the very last minute.
I mischievously suggested on Twitter that Cooper’s apparent loss of all reason in Auckland (for example when he did a no-look offload on his own try line) was simply an execution of the Mohammed Ali “rope-a-dope” tactic. Well that may have been tongue-in-cheek, but one thing I do know – we can’t assume that is how the men in gold will play when the chips are worth real money.
And while we’re on the subject of playing silly-beggars to hide your team’s strategy, Australia face the Springboks, who after fielding two teams you’d flatter by called them second string, find themselves rooted to the bottom of the TriNations table.
For their remaining two matches, they have home advantage, and also by virtue of what must have been a feat of Gandalf-like wizardry by their medical staff, welcome the likes of Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Pierre Spies to their starting lineup.
Well, whatever about the grand design by coach Peter deVilliers, surely he must be under immense pressure to produce a result this weekend to appease his home fans. And will that be easy considering so many players are getting their first Test level action together for so long?
One interesting change de Villiers has made is bringing Butch James in at outhalf. He has been publicly singing the man’s praises since his return home from his long spell at Bath, and given the change in focus away from a kicking style of rugby since the last World Cup, could well be a contender to start this one ahead of Morné Steyn should he produce the goods over the next couple of warm ups.
Australia’s positions of most interest lie in the forwards. Scott Higginbotham makes his first-ever start a year later than he should have – he was all set to run out against the very same Boks at Loftus Versfeld when his back seized up in the warm ups. He was understandably crushed on the day, yet put his head down and played his way back to both fitness and Robbie Deans’ plans when he helped the Reds to their SupeRugby triumph.
Though he generally plays at 6, it will be very interesting to see how he gels with Elsom and Pocock in the back row, particularly up against their formidable opposite numbers Brussow, Roussouw & Spies.
I can only assume that if South Africa are to prevail it will have to be in the front five – their legendary lineout prowess should click readily into gear despite their layoff and if they can put pressure on Will Genia’s scrum feeds early on, could well get their opponents on the back foot..
But whatever Australia is conceding up front, I just can’t look at their lineup from 9 to 15 without thinking they must bounce back from last week’s dire showing. Maybe Butch won’t kick to their powerful back three as often as Morné would have, but they’ll be primed to show the world they’re contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for a record third time.
Which brings me to prediction time I reckon Victor Matfield will have his men playing with fire in their belly, but will fall short mostly because James hasn’t started in a green jumper since 2008 (ironically, that day in Johannesburg, they hammered the Aussies 53-8!).
With another good tackling shift from McCabe & Ashley-Cooper and a moment or three of genius from Beale, O’Connor, Ioane & co inspired by their outhalf, I see an away win on the day, with late bench-clearing bringing it close and rescuing a bonus point for the Boks.
And it’s not like things will get easier for South Africa either. Sure they’ve only the All Blacks to play next! I’ll be back here to preview that in seven days. JLP
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