South Africa vs. Australia: Key Battles to Watch
Given New Zealand’s rampant form in this year's Rugby Championship so far, Saturday’s meeting between South Africa and Australia could turn out to be little more than a fight for bragging rights.
That being said, the Cape Town clash gives the Springboks an opportunity to remain within reach of the awe-inspiring All Blacks, while Ewen McKenzie’s Wallabies are simply seeking to finish a disappointing summer with dignity.
Nevertheless, two of the Southern Hemisphere’s giants will put on a titanic display at Newlands, where it’s the key individual battles that are likely to decide the outcome.
Zane Kirchner vs. Israel Folau
Two figures who didn’t start the tournament at fullback for their respective sides, but look set to finish it there are Zane Kirchner and Israel Folau.
Whereas Kirchner’s draft into the Springboks’ No. 15 jersey is more debatable with the substantial skill set of Pat Lambie dropping to the bench and Willie Le Roux moving to the wing, Folau has pointed himself out as McKenzie’s best option in the position.
There were high hopes for Jesse Mogg heading into this competition, but the Brumbies back quickly showed how easily his defensive lapses could be exposed. As a result, Folau’s versatility was utilised and until McKenzie’s finds his ideal back line formula, it’s at fullback that he’ll remain.
It was in Round 3 of this year’s Rugby Championship that the pair got their first starts at fullback, coincidentally enough against one another. On that occasion, it was Kirchner who triumphed to prevent the Wallabies from crossing over and put in a solid shift under any high ball while even managing to grab a try of his own.
Now, with Folau more settled at the back and Australia slowly getting used to the new setup, the pair will test each other with the boot once more, but with a nothing-to-lose mentality for both sides adding that extra spice.
Francois Louw vs. Michael Hooper
Regardless of his age, Michael Hooper has stood out as one of the Australian pack's leading personalities in this summer’s tournament.
It’s no secret that some of the 21-year-old’s best attributes lie at the breakdown, where his tenacious and committed manner often sees him bear fruit.
However, Hooper comes up against another threatening figure in that area of the pitch, and three weeks ago it was Francois Louw who can say his side came out on top of rucking play.
Earlier this week, Hooper was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Georgina Robinson as saying that his side have to “out-enthuse” their hosts at the breakdown this weekend, adding:
We will be flying into it; that's the only way, I think. We have to out-enthuse these guys at the breakdown and in contact, so in Cape Town it will be a tough one.The forwards can't be everywhere and there was a lot in the wide channels where we got done and turned over ball. There's responsibility for the backs and the team as a whole. Of course, it’s up to much more than just two men to make the difference in such a massive part of play, but one can bet that Hooper and Louw will influence that sector of the game substantially.
Jean De Villiers vs. Christian Lealiifano
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Arguably the best players of their respective nations’ campaigns thus far, Jean De Villiers and Christian Lealiifano are once again primed for an encounter that the former firmly won in Brisbane three weeks ago.
As he often does, De Villiers found the means to break down the Australian line of defence and set a reliable base for his side to attack from, eventually getting on the scoresheet himself in the 38-12 triumph.
Lealiifano has been the most reliable source of points for McKenzie’s men in this tournament and although most of that’s been due to his reliable boot, he’s also been one of the brighter sparks with ball in hand, too.
With Adam Ashley-Cooper moving to the wing this weekend, the Brumbies star has an altogether less experienced centre partner in Tevita Kuridrani and so will have even more responsibility on his shoulders to cope defensively.
In Cape Town, it’s more than likely that Lealiifano’s outing will be mostly about restricting De Villiers’ superb playmaking ability, although the Wallaby will have to ensure that he lights the fuse for his own side moving forward.
Tendai Mtawarira vs. Ben Alexander
With all the star talent on display, this weekend’s battle will showcase a monumental front row battle between South Africa and Australia.
Alongside Sharks teammate Jannie Du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira will be the one responsible for ensuring things go right from numero uno, with Brumbies tighthead Ben Alexander the one opposite him.
The scrum has been an unattractive scene of attention throughout this Rugby Championship, and a lot of the match’s fluidity will rest on whether referee Jerome Garces allows the game to run its course at the set piece.
A fortnight ago, the difference in officiating between Romain Poite and Nigel Owens told the story of two quite opposite games, one being a stop-start affair of constant mishaps, the other a smooth and more watchable occasion.
Mtawarira is always a tough customer to contend with as long as the other components of Heyneke Meyer’s front five are functioning properly.
In Brisbane earlier this month, Sekope Kapu dealt with the scrimmaging duties well before Alexander didn’t fare as successfully, making for an interesting battle where the latter receives a start this time around.
Morne Steyn vs. Quade Cooper
Ewen McKenzie seems to have finally gotten used to the idea that Quade Cooper is his best choice at fly-half after handing the Queensland Red two consecutive starts against South Africa and Argentina.
Granted, things didn’t go to plan with Cooper leading the playmaking in Brisbane three weeks ago, but the flashy No. 10 did show glimpses of the player that the Wallabies need, especially in the first period.
Morne Steyn couldn’t contrast more in style, forever the reserved and reliable figure of South Africa’s back line.
With Lealiifano taking care of all things tee-related, Cooper need only concentrate on ensuring his centres and Folau get hand in ball as regularly as possible.
The 25-year-old doesn’t necessarily need to lose his sense of extravagance, which is, in essence, his trademark and something that works well for him, but taming that side of his character may be prudent against Steyn.
In Mendoza earlier this summer, Argentina showed that a high, pressing line is the best way of forcing Meyer’s South Africa into mistakes and not allowing Steyn to enforce his puppeteer-like presence.