It is undisputed that the Wallabies will face an entirely different challenge to the one posed during the Bledisloe Cup when they play world champions South Africa on the Gold Coast on Sunday night. The Springboks and the All Blacks do not only play different styles of rugby, but they almost play different codes of rugby.
It is like going from the free spiritedness of rugby sevens to the highly structured set-pieces of American football, and the Wallabies will need to adjust their game accordingly.
As the Springboks showed when they won the 2019 World Cup and again in their victorious series against the British and Irish Lions, they will attempt to win the collisions and grind the Wallabies into the turf.
The big, powerful South African forwards will be happy to trot from set-piece to set-piece, while the backs employ a kick and chase strategy, although they do possess plenty of attacking firepower should they choose to unleash it. The Springboks will rush forward in defence to shut down the Wallabies’ attack, not giving the Australians an inch to move in.
It is a conservative approach, which some commentators argue is ruining the game as a spectacle, but it works. Keep in mind the All Blacks are not the No 1 team in the world any more.
After losing the Bledisloe Cup series 3-0, Wallabies coach Dave Rennie indicated the Australians would continue to play a high tempo, expansive game. But will this be any more effective against the Springboks than it was against the Kiwis? This strategy was certainly successful for Japan when the Brave Blossoms upset South Africa 34-32 at the 2015 World Cup, but that win was a one-off.
Unlike the All Blacks’ total Bledisloe dominance since 2003, the Wallabies have fared much better against the Springboks in this period, winning 22 of 44 Tests and drawing two. But since Australia reached the final of the 2015 World Cup, they have only played the Springboks seven times, winning two, losing three and drawing twice. The last time they met in 2019, South Africa won 35-17 in Johannesburg.
The most successful period for the Wallabies in recent history was during Robbie Deans’ tenure as coach when Australia won nine of 14 Tests between 2008 and 2012. There were times under Deans when the Wallabies played a high tempo, expansive game against the Springboks, such as their 41-39 win in Bloemfontein in 2010.
But Deans’ main mantra was that first and foremost the Wallabies had to meet the physical challenge of the Springboks – and there was no greater example than the gritty 11-9 win in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Wellington. If the Wallabies fail to meet the physical challenge, the Springboks will sniff weakness and set out to intimidate and subdue them.
It was peculiar that the Wallabies’ most physical forward, tight-head prop Taniela Tupou, received such limited game-time in the 38-21 loss to the All Blacks in Perth last Sunday. Australia will need all the strength and power they can marshal against the Springboks.
The Wallabies averaged 22.6 points a game against the All Blacks, which was nowhere near enough to compete with the high-scoring Kiwis, who averaged 42.6, but it might be sufficient against the Springboks, who averaged 21 points against the Lions. Sunday night will likely be a tightly-contested game with limited opportunities, which means when the Wallabies see a chance to score, they must take it.
The Wallabies should not planning to beat the Springboks’ rush defence with double cut-out passes, which will invite intercepts. They already suffered enough from that malaise in the Bledisloe Cup series. If the Springboks rush up in defence, the Wallabies must put grubber kicks into the space behind them with the aim of regaining possession and launching an attack.
There has been debate about whether rookie five-eighth Noah Lolesio should start on the Gold Coast. Lolesio has the skill-set to execute the game-plan, but he is yet to really impose his will on the game at Test level. Veteran flyhalf James O’Connor is back training with the Wallabies, but he has not played since sustaining a groin injury in mid-May. Another option is to play utility back Reece Hodge at five-eighth.
Hodge would give the Wallabies much-needed physicality in the No 10 channel. But the problem with him is that he is only a long-range goal-kicker. Notwithstanding the fact he missed a sitter against the All Blacks last Sunday, Lolesio is still the Wallabies’ most reliable goal-kicker. Of course, there is always Quade Cooper. A reluctance to play him against the All Blacks is perhaps understandable, given his history, but his record against the Springboks is fairly decent.
South Africa may be a different challenge to the All Blacks, but the result will be the same for the Wallabies if they do not start to show some marked improvement, particularly in relation to unforced errors. The Springboks may punish mistakes differently to the All Blacks, but will punish them all the same.