The Springboks must prepare for the worst-case scenario with regard to their World Cup quarter-final opponents, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Surely Wales can’t beat Australia this coming Saturday? Surely they’re too depleted to mount any sort of challenge from hereon in? Surely?
Surely the Boks will bank the five log points in the match against the USA on Wednesday and top Pool B? Surely South Africa will line up against Wales in the second quarter-final on 17 October?
Then again, maybe not. The Boks could well play their World Cup nemesis, Australia, in that do-or-die match at Twickenham.
I chatted to the Bok coaching staff about this very subject in the months leading up to the 2015 World Cup. Back then, I felt that the Boks would top Pool B and play one of England or Australia, the two favourites to qualify from Pool A, in the quarter-finals.
The response I received was not the one I expected. The coaches said it was a mistake to plan for that eventuality. They said it was wrong to prepare the players so far in advance, both mentally and physically, for a specific play-off opponent.
In the buildup to the 2011 World Cup, the Boks felt they had a good draw. They were confident about topping their pool and facing Ireland in the quarter-final.
However, Ireland beat Australia in the pool stage to turn the tournament on its head. The Boks were forced into a quarter-final showdown with the Wallabies. We all know how that panned out.
The 2015 World Cup has served up further draw-shaping surprises. Wales scored a big upset when they beat England at Twickenham. Australia landed the knockout blow to the hapless tournament hosts last Saturday. Against most expectations, Australia and Wales will advance from the Pool of Death.
The runners-up from Pool A will play the winners of Pool B. If you haven’t been following the twists and turns of this particular tournament and believe historical form is decisive, you’ll probably back Australia to beat Wales this coming Saturday to secure a quarter-final against Scotland. That would leave Wales to play South Africa in the other play-off.
But there are no guarantees that the Wallabies will get the job done this Saturday. And what the Bok coaching staff said several months ago still rings true: the World Cup draw never unfolds as predicted, and teams need to be able to adapt and adjust from week to week.
Earlier this year, Wales would have been the Boks’ preferred quarter-final opponents. South Africa would have been wary about facing England in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham in a World Cup knockout match. They would have been nervous about playing Australia, a team that has got the better of them in two previous play-off games (the 1999 semi-final and the 2011 quarter-final).
The Boks should beat the USA convincingly on Wednesday and win Pool B. From there, they will wait and see who loses the scrap at Twickenham on Saturday. The Boks may well face Wales, but there is a chance they will be cast alongside Australia in another World Cup epic.
If it’s the latter, then the Boks will have a far greater psychological mountain to climb. Perhaps it's best that they start that ascent sooner rather than later.
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