Ellis Park is a mightily intimidating place.
It’s also a stadium that seems to bring out the best in South African teams playing there. The crowd is partisan, noisy and can, on occasion, become a little hard to take. Crucially, it’s also at altitude.
In rugby, like in business, location is everything — something all South African rugby supporters are well aware of, given the poor record local sides have when travelling.
Happily, the reverse is also true, and history shows that teams from Europe and the Antipodes struggle to perform at their best in Johannesburg’s Circus Maximus. Australia, for one, have not won there since the early Sixties, giving Saturday’s deciding Test for the Mandela Challenge a nice twist — particularly as far as the Springboks are concerned.
Eddie Jones commented midweek that South Africa play a more adventurous game when they’re at home — explaining that they tend to keep the ball in hand instead of belting it into touch like they do when they’re playing in places such as Sydney or Dunedin.
Jones also thinks the Springboks will be more dangerous this weekend than last, and, for once, I hope the man’s right.
The side Jake White has selected for the match certainly seems far more dangerous on paper than the one chosen for the first leg. For a start, Jaco van der Westhuyzen has been moved out to give the Lions’ Andre Pretorius a run at flyhalf. How effective Pretorius will be is open to speculation — my feeling is that he’s great one day and so-so the next — but he is certainly skilled and talented enough to get the Springbok’s potent new back line firing if his service is fast and stable.
Jean de Villiers will play at inside centre in a move many will feel is long overdue. De Villiers has sublime hands, great vision and is, probably, the finest all-round footballer in the back line. He is, however, still relatively inexperienced — especially playing centre at Test level — but I have little doubt that he will perform well.
De Wet Barry, for so long the Springboks’ weapon of mass destruction, deserves to take a rest before he is unleashed again in a week or two.
Jacque Fourie takes over from Marius Joubert at outside centre. Joubert has had a poor season and Fourie’s pace and size should have seen him being given a run sooner.
In any event, the Fourie/De Villiers combination, although untested, sports serious flair on attack and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a revelation of sorts. Of course, it could just as easily bomb woefully, but the Springbok midfield has become so toothless that any combination is likely to perform better.
Jones has made two changes to his back line, bringing back Sterling Mortlock — who is one of international rugby’s finest outside centres and will ask great questions of the Springbok defence — and Chris Latham.
Stephen Larkham, who single-handedly bamboozled the Springboks in Sydney, retains his place and will play on to Matt Giteau at inside centre. As far as creative combinations go, the Australian flyhalf/centre combo will take some beating — let’s hope the new Bok recruits are up to the job.
Bryan Habana and Breyton Paulse will also be hoping their midfield gets things right. The wings have been standing idle for most of this season, and Habana, particularly, must be frustrated to the point of breakdown. Apart from being fantastic footballers, Paulse and Habana are also among the nine players of colour included in the squad for the match — a new record.
White’s decision to select six players of colour for the starting 15 deserves praise. He seems to be handling the more delicate issues well and his decision will certainly please the transformation brigade no end. Let’s just hope they understand the managerial aspect of White’s selection. There are some who feel that White has set a precedent that might just work against him in the near future — but the fact remains that he deserves praise.
Likewise, the South African rugby public have accepted White’s decision with no complaints — perhaps because they realise that the team chosen, apart from one or two position, is the best and most talented available.
The loose trio is entirely new and sees the return of Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith and Solly Tyibilika. The Springboks struggled to win and retain ball on the deck in Sydney — largely due their inability to arrive at the breakdowns quickly and in large numbers.
The added mobility and pace of the new selections should give the Boks greater clout, although one wonders how Tyibilika will perform in the specialist fetcher role against the vastly experienced George Smith. We’ll see tomorrow.
Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield retain their places at lock and give the Springboks a physical presence worth its weight in gold. Just about the only thing that worked in Sydney were the lineouts, and it’s almost certain that South Africa will be on top in this department again in Johannesburg.
Up front, Eddie Andrews and Gurthro Steenkamp have been included, with skipper John Smit retaining his place at hooker. It’s no secret that Andrews is not my idea of an international prop forward, but then I didn’t give Lawrence Sephaka much of a chance against France, either and we all know what he did to Pieter de Villiers.
Steenkamp is also pretty much a clean slate, so I’m going to refrain from shooting my mouth off and see what happens on Saturday. The Australian front row is certainly not that of France, but should be treated with some respect — if only because of its great experience.
It’s always difficult to get a firm grip on things when almost the entire team — including the specialist positions — have been changed ahead of a Test like this. I am confident, however, that the changes in the back line particularly bode well for the Springboks.
And while it’s impossible to get overly excited at this juncture, I’m quietly confident that the Test tomorrow — even if its isn’t won by the Springboks — will at least be an improvement on what we’ve seen so far this season; a new adventure to wipe the slate of a series of unfortunate events.