After coming to New Zealand on optimistic terms after winning their first Tri Nations title in 10 years, the Australian World Cup squad now faces the somewhat inglorious prospect of a quarterfinal elimination against the Springboks.
Things weren't helped by the announcement that Bryce Lawrence would be officiating the match.
With things looking decidedly bleak for the men in gold, I thought I'd put myself in Robbie Deans' official-looking tracksuit for a day and look at what the Wallabies will have to do to pull off a seemingly unlikely victory.
South Africa's game plan
Watch for South Africa to play the kind of rugby they're best at. Their forwards will be looking to win at the breakdown, they'll try to dominate set pieces, and when Morne Steyn isn't slotting penalties or dropped goals, he'll be kicking for territory.
The Australian scrum will be absolutely monstered, and expect them to leak penalties under Lawrence. On the bright side, Frans Steyn's absence means there won't be any penalties scored from distances that no human has any right to kick them from.
Heinrich Brussouw and Schalk Burger will be fighting for ball and attacking the fringes of the ruck, looking to put the same pressure on Will Genia that the Irish managed, and watch for a fast defensive line to limit Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale.
The locks will likely be Bakkies Botha for his physical presence, tag-teamed with Victor Matfield's lineout expertise.
The forward pack must be prepared for a fight
Like I said, the Australian scrum is on the back foot from the offset, made worse by Lawrence's refereeing style. Personally, I think the pack should also be prepared to sacrifice a competitive lineout (with Nathan Sharpe) for an enforcer to combat Botha and take on the flankers. Enter Dan Vickerman, whose physical presence should help immensely with just that.
The breakdown, for me, is where Australia will have to be most competitive. The pack will have to come out firing in the same way they did in Brisbane against the All Blacks. If you're not fetching or retaining ball, you're looking to clean out the rucks.
South Africa must be made to work to keep the ball, to get over the advantage line and to win penalties. If this is done particularly well in the first half, the aging Springboks outfit will likely start to tire towards the end.
In my time as Robbie Deans, I concluded this to be most important thing on which to focus.
David Pocock MUST play 80 minutes
In the second half against Russia, the Bears were only outscored 19–17. Without Pocock, the Wallabies are a completely different team. Against Ireland, they sorely missed his presence at the breakdown.
His strong ball carrying will be important, but more than anything, he needs to be a menace at the breakdown. He needs to do well at fighting for the ball and winning penalties.
Provided he doesn't get injured or carded, and provided he doesn't give away too many penalties, he will be the most vital component available to Australia for the game. I would go so far as to say that if he doesn't play, Australia will lose.
Strike hard, strike fast
Despite how strong the Springboks looked during the pool stages, they showed signs of mortality against Samoa, much the same as Australia did against Italy. They got over the line in the end, but began to look rattled by the Samoans' physical presence and frequent line breaks and half breaks.
Likewise, the Boks' kicking game plays almost perfectly into Australia's best game: running the ball at the line and scoring long-ranged tries. Essentially, Australia need to emulate Samoa's passion while also working on bringing their own high-octane style of play to bear.
Where applicable, watch for them to take quick lineouts and have the likes of Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale looking to work their magic.
From there, the priority becomes attacking the line directly. Digby Ioane returning is a big deal here, with his strength and pace providing a huge asset to the team. Likewise, Adam Ashley-Cooper should be starting in center. But anything that looks to break the advantage line helps, too.
Will Genia's pace and short passing game becomes a useful X-factor that the other backs will need to feed off, and he should cause the South African defense massive problems if he gets enough room to work with.
Personally, I'd bring Radike Samo on at around 50 minutes as an impact player for when the South Africans begin to tire.
Berrick Barnes must be the goal kicker
Word from a local: Wellington is one of the world's most difficult grounds for kicking in. The city itself is notoriously windy and this is both exacerbated and complicated by the stadium's resemblance to a tin circle. The wind can come from a few directions, and when it does, it has a swirl to make any kicker weep.
Berrick Barnes, however, was incredible against the United States. He had a control on his kicks that even Dan Carter and Morne Steyn struggle with at the 'Cake Tin,' and honestly, I thought the Wallabies had found their new goal kicker.
So it's a bit of a mystery why the still inconsistent James O'Connor was the primary kicker in Nelson. To each goes their own, I suppose, but my Robbie Deans tenure taught me that Barnes has done more than enough to take over the primary duties.
The Keyboard Warrior's XV
With the above in mind, and assuming that all of these players are fit enough to step up for a knockout game (as I suspect most of them are), here is my attempt at constructing an Australian squad:
1. James Slipper 2. Stephen Moore 3. Ben Alexander 4. James Horwill (c) 5. Dan Vickerman 6. Rocky Elsom 7. David Pocock 8. Scott Higginbotham 9. Will Genia 10. Quade Cooper 11. Digby Ioane 12. Berrick Barnes 13. Adam Ashley-Cooper 14. James O'Connor 15. Kurtley Beale
Reserves: Sekope Kepu, Saia Faingaa, Rob Simmons, Radike Samo, Ben McCalman, Luke Burgess, Pat McCabe
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