Australia v South Africa: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Rugby Championship Clash

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2014

Australia v South Africa: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Rugby Championship Clash

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    Tertius Pickard/Associated Press

    South Africa will look to extend their lead at the top of the Rugby Championship table with a pivotal matchup set to unfold in Perth on Saturday.

    The Wallabies host a Springboks side riding high on their back-to-back wins over Argentina, but Ewen McKenzie's side should give the table-toppers a sterner test of their mettle, at least in theory.

    McKenzie's men are hoping to bounce back from an embarrassing 51-20 defeat at the hands of New Zealand, and with changes being rung throughout both line-ups, we highlight the most essential head-to-head battles.

1. Bernard Foley vs. Morne Steyn

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    Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    One of the positions affected by both sides coming to Patersons Stadium is that of fly-half, with Bernard Foley and Morne Steyn each poised to make their first starts of the 2014 tournament.

    Foley has ridden the bench thus far so that McKenzie' experiment with Kurtley Beale in the No. 10 jersey could play out, while Meyer has so far placed his faith in starlet Handre Pollard.

    It's a more intriguing change for the Wallabies, as not only has Beale not moved into his more natural inside-centre role, but he's been dropped from the starting XV entirely.

    With Steyn, Heyneke Meyer knows what he's getting. The Stade Francais puppeteer came on in both wins over the Pumas, providing a steadying presence as Pollard showcased some shortcomings in need of fine tuning.

    Foley may not provide the same running presence as his Rugby Championship predecessor, but to get a weakened Australian back line firing, he'll look to offload early and often, as well as testing Willie le Roux's considerable reputation under a high ball.

2. Rob Simmons vs. Victor Matfield

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    Rob Griffith/Associated Press

    Victor Matfield will clinch his first minutes of this year's Rugby Championship when he takes his place in the starting line-up against the Wallabies, with Lood de Jager moving to the bench and Bakkies Botha out altogether.

    It's a big ask of Rob Simmons, but the Reds' own titanic presence will need to ensure Matfield can't establish his usual leading presence at the line-out, lest the Springboks' pack gain an advantage they're sure to exploit.

    Even at 37 years of age, Matfield showed with the Bulls this season just how capable he is of getting around the turf, but Simmons has no reason not to be the more finely conditioned athlete next to his aged counterpart.

    Having been rested for the first two fixtures, Matfield returns from injury revitalised and ready to make an impact, while this will be Simmons' third successive start. 

3. Israel Folau vs. Willie Le Roux

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    Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

    A fullback battle that the Southern Hemisphere has very much been anticipating, Israel Folau and Le Roux will look to secure their own shores but each look to have a huge say in attack on Saturday.

    In that sense, Folau has been the superior player thus far, currently tied as the competition's leading try scorer alongside several others, while Le Roux is yet to get off the mark.

    That being said, the Springbok marvel's priorities are all about the link-up, luring his opposite man in with a teasing approach before unleashing his outside weapons, of which Le Roux has numerous.

    It's essential that any high ball Folau or Foley do launch is pressured quickly and with accuracy, even the slightest slip or misstep having the potential to release Le Roux from his binds, and the rest of his talented back line in kind.

4. Michael Hooper vs. Marcell Coetzee

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    Rob Griffith/Associated Press

    Australia's captain Michael Hooper couldn't do much about Week 2's harrowing defeat, but it was an uncharacteristically inaccurate outing from the openside.

    Per ESPN Scrum, Hooper missed four of his 13 attempted tackles, a fairly unprecedented ratio by his usual standards, and one that Marcell Coetzee will hope can give him an edge over his opposite number.

    Injury to Willem Alberts gave Coetzee his initial window of opportunity into this year's side, but with expectations low and pressure off his shoulders, the Sharks youngster has looked tremendous in patches.

    Despite such honours usually going to the blindsides, these two will be a fierce duo to watch duel at the breakdown, and both are capable of trucking up yardage with ball in hand, being among some of the most balanced loose forwards in the contest.

5. Adam Ashley-Cooper vs. Bryan Habana

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    Tevita Kuridrani comes in at outside centre to partner Matt Toomua in Australia's midfield, which leaves Adam Ashley-Cooper to replace Pat McCabe on McKenzie's flank.

    McCabe suffered a recurrence of a pre-existing neck injury in the most recent loss to New Zealand, and Ashley-Cooper, being the versatile talent he is, will go about his business with some security.

    But that's not to say his safety in the position makes him invulnerable to South Africa's might, and what a might he faces in the form of Bryan Habana, one of those tied with Folau as the Rugby Championship's leading scorer so far.

    Australia's re-introduced wide man will be wise to protect his inside channel in the pace battle, and he is far more likely to encourage his team-mates in floating off his shoulders.

    The one distinct advantage Foley will undoubtedly see in this scenario is Ashley-Cooper's height dominating that of Habana, so any cross-field ball will need to be on point if his fellow Waratah is expected to latch on.

    The same goes for Steyn in a territory battle, however, and any slight unfamiliarity in positioning from Ashley-Cooper could see probing kicks prodded through with the intention to release Habana behind enemy lines.