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Wallabies must balance risk and reward in Pretoria Test


Paul Cully

Stand-in Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe has a crucial role to play in the line-out.

Stand-in Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe has a crucial role to play in the line-out. Photo: Getty Images

Amid the heavy collisions of the All Blacks v Springboks Test in Dunedin two weeks ago a game of chess integral to the outcome was unfolding, with 115-kilogram-plus pieces.

Every time the Springboks' lineout threw in the ball, New Zealand put one of their big men – Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano or Brodie Retallick – up into the air to contest possession. From the seventh minute to the 79th minute, when Whitelock pinched a crucial throw with the score at 18-11, no South African ball was allowed to go unchallenged.

What rich rewards the All Blacks gained from their strategy. They stole four throws, another was deemed not straight and another was knocked on. Coaches would sell their first born for six turnovers from a single component of the game. And what food for thought it must have given the Wallabies' strategists as they plan for Pretoria, because the incentive to cut off the Springboks' oxygen is even greater. Young No.10 Johan Goosen will use clean ball, if he gets it.

The good news must come first. Victor Matfield has cut a rather incongruous figure on television screens this year, in a nice suit and engaged in sideline commentary duties when his every cell must be yelling at him to cross the chalk and start dropping his shoulder into opponents.

Plainly, you cannot lose a legend and hope to carry on unaffected. And what South Africa have lost in his technical expertise at lineout time cannot be replaced by sheer bulk – even when Andries Bekker came on against the All Blacks he suffered the indignity of having the ball tipped away from his fingertips.

No South African set-piece is ever weak but Matfield's retirement has introduced a degree of vulnerability that hasn't been there for years. You do not get many invitations in Test rugby, but there is one here for the Wallabies.

But there are risks and it would be remiss not to address them. Putting up a jumper to contest, of course, is no one-man endeavour. The All Blacks were using two lifters and on occasion it opened up their lineout drive defence like a saloon door. The Boks gained one penalty by shoving them backwards and on another occasion Romano was penalised for playing the man in the air. If the tactic had no consequence, teams would do it all the time.

The perils are also increased by the simple fact it is South Africa. Not only is their lineout drive technically strong, but the giants of their pack are seemingly hard-wired to feed off physical dominance. The sight of a splintered opposition eight wearing green and gold would have terrible implications.

Robbie Deans must have been delicately putting these risks and rewards on his mental scales all week before deciding which carried most weight. And not for the first time in recent days he also has a troublesome five-eighth to consider. Contrary to some opinion, Deans knows a player when he sees one. And Goosen is a player: the economy of movement in his goalkicking, his determination to play with his head up, the awareness of his outsides – all the attributes are there. The danger he poses – especially in the third or fourth phase from a set-piece move - might tip the balance towards targeting the jumpers.

Other factors come into this complex mix. Surprisingly, there is no guarantee of Wallabies' dominance at the breakdown. In fact, the Wallabies steal less ruck and maul ball than the Springboks, even though intuition might tell you otherwise. Australia have pilfered an average of just two possessions a game in 2012, while the Springboks have secured 2.7. In The Rugby Championship the Wallabies have lost more than they have stolen.

Previously the likes of Benn Robinson could have been relied upon to contribute in this area, but it is a trait that has not been evident in his game of late. Meanwhile, South African openside Francois Louw will get more leniency from the officials than he did in Dunedin, where he was hard done by on at least one occasion. The Bath player has power and technique over the ball.

There are hard calls to be made by Deans and his lieutenants. Much of the talk this week has been about a brave style of play. But it means much more than tossing the ball around the backs. In Nathan Sharpe, Kane Douglas, Radike Samo and Dave Dennis he has some chess pieces of his own to deprive the Springboks of quality ball. He must be sorely tempted to be bold and use them.

12 comments so far

  • Good article Cully as it points to the littlest of tweaks in strategy that can reap favourable reward if applied correctly. At the level that these teams play at, coupled with how often they place each, it's those tweaks that mean the difference between winning and losing. I concur with your final paragraph and only hope that the Wallaby Coaching Staff are bold and adventurous enough to find and make those little tweaks !
    At this point in the competition it's everything to gain but nothing to loose, eh ?

    inner west sydney
    Date and time
    September 27, 2012, 1:56PM
    • Can't disagree with this, just hope that the 'advenurous' play is bold but calculated (as mentioned above) anyone that chip kicks should get dragged!

      Date and time
      September 27, 2012, 3:04PM
  • I can't see them winning in Pretoria unfortunately, Hope I'm wrong about this - but if not, lets not hear that Quade Cooper will be the answer.

    Sideline Sam
    Date and time
    September 27, 2012, 5:14PM
    • Mate I think you guys are better off without Quade. Let him go to league. He'll impress right up to the time where he has to make a tackle or put his body on the line and he'll be exposed for the gutless wimp that he is. Goosen is an excellent player and he will take the Wallabies forward.

      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 9:29AM
    • Kiwijohn Im sure Goosen would've made a fine Wallaby........ if he hadn't been a Springbok

      The Winners Circle
      Date and time
      September 29, 2012, 5:48PM
  • The All Blacks short lineout on their own 5 metre line in the 76th minute was bizare. They threw to their halfback with no lifters and it was taken and knocked forward by the Boks hooker. It was downright weird when they only led by 7 points at the time. It was hard to see much thought went into their own lineout. With tactics like that there has to be a loss comming for them if not this weekend then probably the next.

    Date and time
    September 27, 2012, 6:33PM
    • Keep dreaming. Unlike you guys we've never lost to the Argies and aren't going to start doing that yet.

      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 9:28AM
    • Errmmm..... it was bizzare because it wasn't a tactic but a balls up. The plan for a short line out did not involve throwing to the 1/2 back. The noise inside the stadium is very loud....... its safe to say the call was lost in the racket & the jumpers weren't ready.

      The Winners Circle
      Date and time
      September 29, 2012, 5:46PM
  • Contrary to 'foreigner who couldnt stand the idea of the Wallabies being better than the All Blacsks' and Deans sycophant - Paul Cully, Robbie Deans wouldnt know a good player if he fell over one and if he did he makes sure he doesn't get settled in the Wallabies in one position so he can find some form . But keep talking Deans up and the Wallabies down Paul while you can. You aint got much time. McKenze is coming.

    Date and time
    September 27, 2012, 8:07PM
    • And McKenzie is going to be your saviour J-B? Seriously?
      I can't wait to see hear the 'bring back Deans' calls should McKenzie get the gig and things go pear shaped for him.

      My money's on Nuci for the job

      Date and time
      September 28, 2012, 11:08PM

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