Wallabies’ persistence against Springboks is futile

There is an unwritten rule in sport that you should never feel sorry for Australia, because they won't be down for long. 

Right now, the Australian cricket team is weaker than at any time since Kerry Packer dragged the game kicking and screaming into the 20th century in the late 1970s. The rugby union team, meanwhile, has regressed to a similar point in history, when the 15-man code was ridiculed down under as the last gasp of colonialism.

Back then, union was played at first-class level only in Queensland and New South Wales, which meant that the national selectors had a relatively simple job. That's a major contrast to the present day, when there are five Super Rugby franchises in Australia (which is about two too many) and the selectors can't see the wood for the trees.

It has reached the stage where serial offenders such as James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale are kept in the system because their talent is perceived to be more important than their disastrous attempts at social lives. One wonders what the Wallabies of earlier eras make of the mollycoddling of these two. One thinks in particular of the great John Hipwell, who died this week at the age of 65.

Hipwell took over as Wallaby scrumhalf in 1968, when Ken Catchpole suffered a career-ending injury. Between them, Catchpole and Hipwell filled the number nine jersey for Australia for a quarter of a century. Each was the best player in every team they represented and each set impossibly high standards on and off the field.

And yet neither man was ever in line to boast about their abilities. Catchpole came to Johannesburg on holiday a few years ago and, when asked if there was a current scrumhalf he rated, said: "Wish I'd been as good as Justin Marshall." 

By general consent, the best scrumhalf to come along since Marshall is playing for South Africa at the weekend: Fourie du Preez.

What's more, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has placed Du Preez in the run-on side, a factor that makes it even less likely that Australia will be let off lightly at Newlands. 

Public humiliation
In the circumstances, and given what happened in Brisbane last month, it is difficult to believe that this week's fixture can be anything other than a public humiliation for the Wallabies. They are simply too callow a side to honour Hipwell's passing with an unexpected win.

This will be despite the urging of coach Ewen McKenzie, who played for the Wallabies the last time they won at Newlands in 1992. That was the day when the newly out of isolation Springboks were forced to confront the fact that the game had passed them by. 

A week earlier at Ellis Park, two late tries against the All Blacks had given the home side's performance a veneer of sophistication. It did not withstand the examination by the world champions a week later.

It's possible to argue that the seeds for South Africa's 1995 World Cup success were sown on that August day in Cape Town, when Australia won 26-3. Suddenly, it became apparent exactly how far behind the world game the Springboks had fallen. It was no longer a case of fixing a few holes, but of finding a whole new way of playing.

Three years later at the same venue, the Boks had their revenge in the opening fixture of the World Cup. Joel Stransky at flyhalf did the full house of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal, and Pieter Hendriks ran around David Campese to score the best try of the entire tournament.

Meyer is two years from the next World Cup. He has put behind him the altogether too grim approach of his first season in charge and should be looking to matches like this to put down a marker. The return of Du Preez, who was made available only for Bok home games by his club in Japan, should ease the way.

It is, however, a totally different scenario this week for the former Bull. Du Preez wowed critics with 20 minutes of slick service against the Pumas in Soweto. But when he came on, the hard work had been done and the Pumas had been subdued. It is completely different starting against opponents who will be justifiably angry at the way their chances have been written off in articles such as this.

Nevertheless, if Du Preez does indeed covet another World Cup tournament, he will have to hit the ground running. It is his job to mastermind not just a comfortable win, but also a four-try bonus point to keep the Boks' Rugby Championship title hopes alive.

He will have to keep it tidy around the rucks and breakdown points, where the Wallaby loose forwards will attempt to do what David Pocock did in Wellington the last time Du Preez started a Test match for his country, at the 2011 World Cup. 

But if he wants to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, he could do worse than watch a few videos of the late lamented John Hipwell.

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