Cape Town: A two-year transformation under collision king Richie Gray has turned South Africa into the most ferocious breakdown competitors in Test rugby, Wallabies forwards coach Andrew Blades has warned.
Already circled in red on Australia’s Test calendar as the “biggest physical challenge of the year”, the Wallabies have had to rewrite the guide book to the Springboks in the lead up to their Rugby Championship clash against South Africa at Newlands Stadium this weekend.
Where once an Australian team could expect a back row dependent on size and brute force, the influence of Scottish breakdown guru Gray has made them a different beast.
“It really presents a lot more problems and it’s a big change they’ve made in their game, how much pressure they put on at the breakdown,” Blades said.
“It’s probably the biggest change they’ve made in the last two years. I think they got 10 turnovers against the All Blacks around that area of the game, so it’s a big focus now when you’re playing them.”
In fact, the Springboks turned the ball over 11 times on defence in Wellington 10 days ago. A 14-10 scoreline in the All Blacks’ favour says the work over the ball of Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee and Duane Vermeulen alone was not enough, but it has given the Wallabies plenty of homework this week as they try to break a 22-year drought in Cape Town.
“Traditionally you would always say South Africa played with big back rows, so you would run them around and generally stretch yourselves and get a little isolated with the ball,” Blades said.
“When you’ve had success against them in the past, it’s been around those sorts of things, and the change of profile has created a major rethink about the way you play them.”
A neck injury to Louw means the openside breakaway will miss at least six weeks of rugby, removing one headache from the equation, but Gray’s influence means the Wallabies will have to deal with onballers all over the park this weekend.
“Coetzee is still there and Vermeulen’s getting better and better … and both their hookers are very good on the ball at the breakdown,” Blades said, adding that winger Bryan Habana and centre Jan Serfontein were also developing reputations for their work over the ball.
“They’ve had Richie Gray there working intensively at that area and they see that. I think they identified it as a major area they could improve to get a point of difference.”
Blades said the downside of the newfound-upside was “living on the edge” of the penalty count.
“When you’re doing that you’re living on the edge often, so you often give away a lot of penalties for not releasing the tackled player,” he said.
“And when you really go hard at the ball, often you can get penalised heavily as well, and I guess that’s one of the weaknesses from that point of view. Also when you’re all going hard on the ball you can overcommit in rucks and leave the next defensive line short.”
The Springboks, meanwhile, heaped praise on the Wallabies’ scrum, calling it “tricky” but effective.
“We get that from a lot of teams,” Blades said. “If Australia has success in the scrum it must be because they’re doing something illegal. That’s just a standard thing we get most weeks, so everyone just gets on with it.”
The last time the Wallabies won at Newlands Stadium was in 1992, a Test in which Ewen McKenzie was the starting tight-head prop and Blades was on the bench.
After two convincing wins against Australia last year, the Springboks appear confident about their chances of extending the Cape Town drought to a 23rd year.
“The thing everyone knows when you play South Africa is it’s always going to be your biggest physical challenge of the year, so you always have your head around that,” Blades said, adding the Wallabies wanted to be more multidimensional in attack.
“They’re a team that spreads their defence across the field, and one of the things we’re trying to improve as a team is seeing what’s in front of us.
“There have been times this year when teams, because they know we want to run the ball, have used 14 players in the front line.
“We’re trying to get better at reading those situations better, working out the balance of when to run and when to kick; and even when we run, where the weaknesses are.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.