Durban delight brings problems for Deans
August 15, 2011
Australia's latest victory over South Africa has added to coach Robbie Deans' selection dilemma © Getty Images
As rollercoasters go, supporting the Wallabies is one of the hairiest. In just this Test season, we endured the Samoa debacle, celebrated a rousing victory over a second string Springboks, before cringing as the All Blacks brutally dimmed our World Cup ambitions.
Yet there was to be another twist in this ride, with the Wallabies grinding out a significant victory Saturday in Durban against the most experienced South African line-up in their history. Despite it being several of the Springboks' first Test of the season, this was their first-choice team and the result ranks near the breakthrough win on the high veldt a year earlier as one of the Wallabies greatest away victories.
From the exasperation of Auckland, Robbie Deans must have been delighted with many aspects of his team's Durban performance, not least the ability to put quickly behind them a bad result the week before. The defensive line rediscovered its starch and was key to a match where the Wallabies saw little ball and ceded territorial advantage.
It's not often said, but the Wallabies scrum was also a strength and the sight of the 'men in gold' pushing over a World Cup-winning Springboks pack was worth the red eyes after staying up until the small hours of the morning. The lineout was more dangerous and Nathan Sharpe did his World Cup dreams no harm in stealing several South African throws, while Rocky Elsom showed he was still the force the Wallabies need their captain to be.
As has been the case in each Test this season, the bench made an impact with Radike Samo, returning to the international scene after a seven-year hiatus, brutal around the ruck and Anthony Faingaa resembling a human missile by launching bone-rattling hits on the Springbok backline. It was Faingaa's tackle on JP Pietersen in the second half, as the Boks looked likely to break the line, that was a key turning point in the contest. What may have been a try conceded turned into three valuable points as Faingaa managed to get back to his feet above the prone Pietersen to earn the penalty opportunity.
Faingaa and Samo are now almost certain to be named along with at least 19 of the other 20 members of the Durban squad in Deans' World Cup squad on Thursday. But who will lay claim to the last eight or nine remaining boarding passes to New Zealand? A lot will depend on the forward-backs split Deans leans towards in the 30-man squad. It's likely to be a 16 forwards-14 backs combination, but a 17-13, or even 18-12 mix could be in the offing, given the versatility of the backline. Adding to the complexity of trying to double guess Deans, is whether he will take two or three halfbacks, something Nick Phipps will be hoping is the latter.
However, lock Rob Simmons is certain to be named having only missed the Durban leg of the Tri-Nations through a shoulder injury, which leaves Sitaleki Timani or Dan Vickerman vying for the fourth lock position. But Deans has more of a headache in selecting the front row. Ben Alexander, Sekope Kepu and Salesi Ma'afu were dominant in Durban, but with Benn Robinson and James Slipper expected to pass fitness tests this week, someone has to miss out. While Ma'afu is the least experienced and most likely to be excluded, Deans would be taking a massive gamble on including two injured front rowers in his squad.
The comeback story of the year must be Drew Mitchell, who is back in full training less than 4 months after suffering a badly broken leg and dislocated ankle. If passed fit, Mitchell has to be included given his proven try-scoring record at international level (27 tries in 55 matches). Whether he can unseat Digby Ioane and James O'Connor for a starting berth is another question.
But most intriguing is who Deans selects as back up to Quade Cooper. While Deans sees Kurtley Beale and O'Connor as genuine options at fly-half should Cooper be unavailable, both Berrick Barnes and Matt Giteau are waiting in the wings. What is certain is that there is not space for both, meaning a key player from the Wallabies squad over the past four years is going to fall at the final hurdle. But who will it be?
Barnes has been performing well at club level since returning from his self-imposed layoff to find the cause of his migraine issues and is likely to be selected ahead of Giteau for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in a team still short on leaders, Barnes is seen by Deans as having the on-field presence to direct the attack. Deans has already shown his faith in the Waratahs' pivot, choosing him as vice-captain before the 2009 spring tour and captain of a mid-week Wallabies team last spring. The other reason is Barnes has more versatility than Giteau, being able to play at fullback where he has appeared for Sydney Uni in his past two outings. But can Deans trust that Barnes is completely over his head knock issues which will only become apparent in the heat of a World Cup contest? We'll see on Thursday.
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