It would be easy to compare Saturday’s opening Tri-Nations Test between Australia and South Africa with the equivalent contest in 2007. The venue was the same, the Olympic Stadium built for the 2000 Games, and on both occasions the Springbok coach arrived without a plethora of first-choice players. But it might be more germane to remember 1993, the year the Springboks toured Australia for the first time since 1971.
That’s because the team announced on Tuesday is so raw, with 11 of the matchday 22 having fewer than 10 caps to their name. It’s also because, rather like Ian McIntosh’s 1993 side, the team isn’t quite sure what kind of rugby it would like play.
Everything was new for the Springboks back then, as they discovered regularly basis that the international game had moved on since they were last allowed out of the republic to play. They arrived in Australia on the back of a home series defeat to France. Naas Botha had retired and McIntosh stirred up a hornet’s nest by appointing Francois Pienaar as captain, over the much more highly regarded Tiaan Strauss.
Pienaar remembers that the nerves of running out at the head of the team on match days were as nothing compared to the press conference in the arrivals hall at Sydney on the day the Boks flew in. Back then the Springboks were front and back page news and there were some 200 reporters from across the media spectrum at the airport, all expecting the fellow from Vereeniging to speak English to them.
Far fewer greeted the delayed Boks of Peter de Villiers this week, and John Smit, who in addition to winning his 103rd cap on Saturday also has English as a first language, long ago forgot what it’s like to be nervous in front of the fourth estate.
Ironically, his nerves will probably be saved for the game, because the most decorated international captain of all time leads a B team against the Wallabies, unsure of his role in the coach’s mind in a World Cup year.
Like Pienaar in 1993 Smit is under pressure as both player and captain, while the majority of his charges have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The Achilles heel of this side is not inexperience, as it was in 1993, but unfamiliarity. There is talent aplenty and enough players who have seen it all before — Smit, Danie Rossouw, Ruan Pienaar and Wynand Olivier — to carry them through the rough times. But the side as a whole has a mix and match feel to it that has not served De Villiers well during his time in charge.
Remember the third Test against the British Lions in 2009, when, with the series won, De Villiers chose to throw in the fringe players. Remember, too, the post-season tour of 2009 when the Boks lost to both Leicester and Saracens with his “development” side.
There are nine players in this week’s match 22 who played in the latter two games and no one will need to remind them of what lies ahead.
Ashley Johnson played against both Leicester and Saracens and fell out of the reckoning as a direct result in 2010. But he is a much better player now and thoroughly deserves his call-up for a first Test cap. Johnson was the outstanding forward on display when the Cheetahs beat the Crusaders in Super Rugby this year and he will relish his battle with a Wallaby back row that looks a little one paced.
The area of concern for De Villiers will be at halfback, where Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn take on the best pair in the world right now, Will Genia and Quade Cooper. It is a long time since Steyn dominated a Test match in the manner that he did in 2009, while Pienaar has been plucked back from Ulster to have another go at convincing De Villiers he is the second-best available scrumhalf.
The performances of Genia and Cooper in Super Rugby with the Reds this year led directly to the Queensland side winning the tournament.
Their ability to break down defences is the single reason that the Wallabies have not been written off as a threat at this year’s World Cup.
Cooper was rested and Genia only played the last 20 minutes against Samoa last week, which goes some way to explaining how the Wallabies lost their opening Test of the season. How they perform against the underdone Springboks will determine the immediate future of the team. It’s not that they have poor players around them, merely that the team has lost more games than it has won under coach Robbie Deans.
It would be stretching things to suggest that the Wallabies are there for the taking; after all, in the history of the Tri-Nations the Boks have won just three times in Australia and never at the Olympic Stadium. It’s far more likely that the B team will endure a narrow defeat, but in this particular case the result is less important than the run out for a few players who may yet be a major influence at the World Cup.