Australia coach Robbie Deans entered into the mind-games war ahead of this Saturday’s Test against South Africa in Johannesburg.
Fresh from last weekend’s 27-15 victory in Durban – the Wallabies’ first victory in the republic for eight years – New Zealander Deans decided to take the never-change-a-winning-team rule and throw it out the window.
Deans has called in fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper, lock Hugh McMeniman, flanker Phil Waugh, hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and centre Timana Tahu as he looks to put the Wallabies in the box-seat ahead of the Tri-Nations decider against New Zealand in Brisbane in a fortnight.
Tahu is the man to watch – and if the former rugby league international can match or better the likes of Jean de Villiers at Ellis Park, it may be game over for the under-fire Boks. George Smith? It can’t be that important – he’s on the bench.
Deans said, with probably little expectation that anyone would believe him, that he changed his team because of the "respect" he had for South Africa. Nothing to do with the fact he has a chance to try combinations before the New Zealand match, then.
He said: "It’s because of the respect we have for them, and the enormity of the challenge we have in front of us trying to win back-to-back South African Test matches, and in Johannesburg for the first time in so long, that we feel we need to bring in some fresh legs.
"Last weekend took a lot out of our guys … we will need the impetus that the fresh legs we’ve included will bring."
Hmm … is it this cynical writer, or is Deans starting to sound remarkably like Graham Henry?
And it won’t be lost on the new Wallabies coach that a win over South Africa will mean little in the overall scheme of things, other than ensuring Australia need only a draw against the All Blacks to win a rare Tri-Nations trophy. And the last time Australia played for a draw against New Zealand hasn’t been recorded.
Meanwhile, beleagured rival coach Peter de Villiers is under increasing pressure – having "guided" the Springboks to one
last-gasp – All Black fans call it lucky – victory in five Tri-Nations games. South African fans are unlikely to greet a return of one win out of six matches with much compassion – especially considering their team was on top of the world less than a year ago. World champions to Southern Hemisphere whipping boys in the space of 10 months is some feat.
De Villiers has made two enforced changes – Odwa Ndungane coming in for injured winger J P Pietersen and Brian Mujati replacing banned prop C J van der Linde – but he has resisted calls to change a side that has been a distant third throughout this year’s tournament.
Despite having five or six of the world’s best back-rowers to choose from, de Villiers has failed to come up with a combination that can compete with the likes of Richie McCaw or George Smith at the breakdown. In Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw, Luke Watson, Pedrie Wannenburg, Joe van Niekirk etc, South Africa have world-class athletes
to call upon that any Guinness Premiership side coach would sell his sister for. Unfortunately, they all look a bit lost at the breakdown and the Australasian sides have taken full advantage.
British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan and manager Gerald Davies are in South Africa to watch Saturday’s Test, and they probably won’t be too upset by de Villiers’ woes. The saying in rugby goes "beware a wounded Springbok", but it doesn’t take a genius to work out what happens when a Lion comes across a wounded Springbok. The antelope doesn’t often come out on top.
And it’s not as if Australia don’t win successive Tests in South Africa. They did it in 1963, which is only 45 years ago. And that famous Test was played at Ellis Park, so there’s a precedent.