JON CARDINELLI analyses the key match-ups and picks the winner at Suncorp Stadium.
So much for pre-tournament predictions.
The Springboks couldn't have asked for a tougher tour of Australasia. I wrote at the start of the 2013 Castle Rugby Championship that the Boks were unlikely to break their duck at the Suncorp Stadium, and that at this stage of the team's development, they would not be strong enough to win at Eden Park, a ground that last saw a South African victory way back in 1937.
While I maintain that the Boks have a long way to go before they can challenge the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, I wonder if the time has indeed come for them to break the Suncorp Stadium curse.
I arrived in Brisbane this Sunday with the assumption that the Boks would lose to the Wallabies. That view has been challenged by recent revelations and developments.
The Wallabies are coming off two losses to the All Blacks. Many say these games were close, and that the Wallabies would have won if not for a few mistakes. Ultimately, this is Loffie Eloff-thinking. If not for a several handling errors here, or a few missed tackles there, even the Lions would be Super Rugby champions, right? Wrong.
The Wallabies come into the clash with a zero-from-two Rugby Championship record, and a one-from-five record in Tests played in 2013. They are desperate for a win, and will be hoping that the hoodoo of Suncorp Stadium continues to spook the fight out of the South Africans.
Like his team, coach Ewen McKenzie is a man under pressure. He is yet to record a victory since taking the reins from Robbie Deans, whose four-year tenure was largely unsuccessful. Having said that, the Deans-coached group won seven of the last nine Tests against the Boks, and only lost to South Africa in Australia on one occasion, in Perth, 2009.
And so, McKenzie and a team that are embracing a new philosophy will not want to start this new era of matches against the Boks with a loss at home. They will be under immense pressure to keep the record at Suncorp Stadium intact. Australian rugby needs this win after the disappointment of yet another Bledisloe Cup hammering and a gutting loss in the preceding series against the British & Irish Lions.
Again, picking the Wallabies to win this clash would have been an easy decision at the beginning of competition, and even at the beginning of this week. But having witnessed first hand the pressure on McKenzie and his charges, and having seen captain James Horwill pull out of the game because of a hamstring strain, it's a prediction I cannot make with absolute conviction.
Heyneke Meyer will be smiling. The Boks have come to Australasia with few expectations. They view this block of games as an opportunity to grow, to test themselves and improve in terms of performances, if not results.
And suddenly, there is an opening. With the Australian media and public applying the pressure, the Wallabies need to respond with a positive. It will make them dangerous, but it will also make them more vulnerable.
I don't believe that Meyer has selected a particularly strong team, although it is probably the strongest team available at present. A lot has been made of the selection of Zane Kirchner at fullback, but when one considers that Frans Steyn and Jaco Taute are unavailable and that Bjorn Basson has battled to make an impression at this level, I don't think it's the worst decision in the world.
Kirchner offers the Boks a great tactical-kicking option at the back and Willie le Roux will still have an attacking influence from the right wing.
But this shouldn't be the Boks' primary focus. They need to overpower the Wallabies at the set-pieces and they must show a massive improvement in their breakdown play. They were poor in the clash against Scotland this past June, and similarly limp in the most recent battle with Argentina in Mendoza. This Saturday will demand greater power and accuracy.
They will be confident about their scrummaging, and whether Juandré Kruger starts at No 5 or not, they will feel they have an edge at the lineout.
The Wallabies will not be as competitive without Horwill, the leader and lineout kingpin. The Boks will look to win the set-pieces and either maul the Wallabies back or kick for field position. If the Boks can dictate terms from an early stage in the contest and get the unflappable Morné Steyn within penalty-goal range, they will stand a good chance of victory.
Much has changed over the past three weeks and, indeed, over the past five days. The Boks' chances of winning are greater now than they were at the start of the competition and this match is going to be a lot tighter than most would have initially predicted.
Can the Boks hold their nerve to break the Suncorp Stadium curse? We will find out this Saturday exactly how strong they are, physically and mentally.
I still believe that the beleaguered Wallabies will grow stronger as the game draws to a climax. The Boks will control the game initially, but the Wallabies will do enough to remain in the contest.
When the game opens up in the final quarter, it will be the hosts who use the great running conditions to their advantage and score at least one try to confirm the result.
As I wrote earlier in the week, it would be a remarkable over-achievement for the Boks to win this Saturday. To lose would not be a disaster.
The Boks go into this match as underdogs, and while that tag, as well as the intense public and media pressure on the Wallabies will aid the visitors' cause, the hosts will still get the job done.
MY CALL: Wallabies by 5
Wallabies – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Adam-Ashley Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 James O'Connor, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper.
Subs: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Jesse Mogg.
Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandré Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Back Bulls to beat Force
Where you should put your money in Super Rugby this weekend, according to MARK KEOHANE.
‘SA ball skills are poor’
What former Springbok coach NICK MALLETT had to say on SuperSport about Saturday's matches at Kings Park and Newlands.
Brain must complement brawn
Poor decision-making was at the heart of a disappointing weekend for South African rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.