The road to the 2019 World Cup begins on Sunday morning when the Wallabies travel to Johannesburg to take on the Springboks in the opening game of The Rugby Championship. The Wallabies will be looking to put aside their less than ideal 2018 season, with this performance shaping our expectations in a crucial World Cup year.
They begin their campaign by heading to Ellis Park, the heart and soul of Springbok rugby. This is the site of many of the Springboks’ greatest triumphs, highlighted by their nation-building win in the 1995 World Cup final. Ellis Park is also the site of the most demoralising loss in Wallabies history, losing 53-8 to a red-hot Springbok side in 2008.
The Wallabies are coming off their worst international season since 1958, winning just 4 out of 13 games. The side is heading into the relative unknown, with this being the first test AI (After Izzy) and without fearless leader David Pocock.
However, there is renewed optimism in the camp thanks to a strong finish to the Super Rugby season by the Brumbies, who won 7 straight before losing to the Jaguares in the semi-final.
The Springboks had a roller-coaster 2018 season, initially starting with a 2-1 series win over England before dropping games against all three teams in the Rugby Championship along with Wales. The South African franchises had a less than impressive Super Rugby campaign, with no representatives making the semi-final for the second time in 17 years.
Coach Rassie Erasmus has made the bold decision to split the squad, deciding to fly numerous members over to New Zealand to prepare for their clash with the All Blacks in a week.
The Wallabies have unveiled a new look test outfit, with just 10 out of the 23 from the end of year international against England surviving. Rebels Isi Naisarani is the only debutant in the starting line-up, whilst firey ranga Harry Johnson-Holmes has been brought onto the bench for his potential debut.
Nic White is given his shot at the starting halfback position, whilst Tom Banks has won the race to the vacant fullback position, which has forced Dane Haylett-Petty to shift to the wing to partner Reece Hodge and relegated Kurtley Beale to the bench.
The Springboks have chosen a significantly weaker team than usual on the account of Erasmus’ split squad. The exclusion list is headed by captain Sita Kolisi and flyer Aphiwe Dyantyi who is still recovering from injury whilst fly-half Handre Pollard, fullback Willie le Roux, hooker Malcolm Marx and prop Steven Kitshoff are amongst those who have already made the trip to New Zealand.
In his absence, towering lock Eben Etzebeth will lead the inexperienced side against the Wallabies, with Toulouse backrower Rynhardt and Stormers halfback Herschel Jantjies set to make their debuts. Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant will form a lethal back three alongside Sharks wingers S’busiso Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi, whilst veteran Francois Steyn returns to the Springboks for the first time since 2017 via the bench.
From the Wallabies perspective, I’m a huge fan of the selection of Tom Banks at fullback. Banks shapes as a real game breaker for the Wallabies with his explosive speed from the back and if he can get his hands on some good ball early he can take the game away from the Springboks.
This game marks a crucial stage in the careers of both Nic White and Bernard Foley. For White, the elevation to the starting role is a massive opportunity to show his development and progress since we last saw him. A solid performance from White can help ward off the chasers in Joe Powell and Tate McDermott and confirm his spot in the matchday 23.
As for Foley, this is the game to prove that he still the best fly-half in the country. The position is arguably as strong as it’s ever in since he took over the starting role in 2014 and he needs to show he can manage and close out a game, which he lacked in the Super Rugby season.
The Springboks will be heavily reliant on experienced players such as Tendai Mtawarira and Eben Etzebeth to impose their physicality on the game. Mtawarira and Etzebeth will be essential in shutting down the set-piece for the Wallabies, with all reports suggesting that this will be a big part of their game, following a similar pattern implemented by the Brumbies across the Super Rugby season.
Andre Esterhuizen will have the toughest assignment of the lot, marking up against steamroller Samu Kerevi. The selection of Esterhuizen is a great move by Erasmus, with the brute centre one of the best defenders in his position, evident in the Super Rugby where he missed just 15 tackles in his 16 games played. If he can restrict Kerevi’s impact in the game, then this will go a long way in getting South Africa over the line.
Numbers that matter (Thanks to Opta Sports)
1963: The last time that Australia defeated the Springboks at Ellis Park
53-8: The score the last time Australia played at Ellis Park in 2008, the biggest loss in Wallaby history.
24%: The Wallabies winning percentage against the Springboks in South Africa
82%: The success rate of the Springboks at Ellis Park since 2003.
2011/2015: The Wallabies have won the last two shortened Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations that have happened before the World Cup.
40%: The combined success rate of both teams in 2018
59: Total tries scored between the Wallabies starting 15 in Super Rugby/English Premiership, 28 more than the Springboks.
With the combination of a strong Wallabies squad and a severely weakened Springbok team, I’m backing the Aussies to get the job done. I think that the Wallabies have picked a strong side along with some solid finishers in Tupou, Dempsey and Beale that can secure the result. Then again that could be the optimism talking.
Match Prediction: Wallabies by 5
Bold Prediction: Banks 2+ tries
Wallabies (15-1): Tom Banks, Dane Haylett-Petty, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge, Bernard Foley, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (c), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper
Reserves: Jordan Uelese, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Jack Dempsey, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Kurtley Beale
Springboks (15-1): Warrick Gelant, S’busiso Nkosi, Jesse Kriel, Andre Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi, Elton Jantjies, Herschel Jantjies, Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Rynhardt Elstadt, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth (c), Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira.
Reserves: Schalk Brits, Lizo Gqoboka, Vincent Koch, Marvin Orie, Marcell Coetzee, Cobus Reinach, Francois Steyn, Dillyn Leyds
Date: Sunday, July 21st
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 1:05 am AEDT (17:05 local)
Where to Watch: Channel 10 on FTA and Fox Sports 6 (Channel 506) for Foxtel.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
AR1: Matthew Carley (England)
AR2: Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)