Boks, Wallabies face off early in RWC quarters
Updated: October 08, 2011, 01:02
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) A single upset in pool play has pitted Australia against South Africa in the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup, leaving both teams to contend with both the familiar and the unforeseeable.
They are regular rivals in Tri-Nations matches, of which Australia has won two this season and four out of five in the past two years. But neither team expected to face each other this early in the World Cup knockout rounds and that eventuality has heightened tension in both camps ahead of Sunday's match at Wellington Regional Stadium.
"You can feel the pressure building,'' Springbok lock Victor Matfield said. "You could hear it in the streets last night, everyone coming in for the big game. It's all about handling that pressure and taking it into the game - using it as an advantage by taking energy from it.''
Australia's loss to Ireland on Sept. 17 - the first and largest upset of the tournament's pool rounds until Tonga beat France - has forced world rugby's second- and third-ranked nations into sudden-death conflict much sooner than expected.
The tournament is now certain to lose one of its giants in the first knockout stage and one of their respective quests to make history will end. But Australia captain James Horwill said his team did not find the pressure oppressive.
"We've trained really well all week and all the boys are pretty switched on,'' he said. "They understand what's at stake in the game ahead so we haven't really needed to speak about it any differently.
"We've had clarity with what we're doing. We just want to go out there and do it. The waiting game begins.''
Both Australia and South Africa are attempting to become the first to win the World Cup three times: the Springboks by adding to their 1995 and 2007 victories and Australia to its 1991 and 1999 triumphs. South Africa is also bidding to become the first to win successive Cups.
But Australia captain James Horwill
Matfield said Saturday he felt an unusual amount of support for his side from New Zealanders.
"It feels like they're cheering us,'' Matfield said. "It's the first time I've been to New Zealand when people are saying 'good luck.' I think they hate the Aussies more than they hate us.''
Adding to the swirl of historic ambition, and the likelihood that the winner will face New Zealand in the semifinals, is that the teams differ so greatly in experience and style.
The Springboks have selected the most experienced lineup in their history with the players totaling 837 test caps. It will be led by 2007 Cup-winning captain John Smit, who will play his 17th World Cup match on Sunday, more than any other South African.
Australia is a much younger side, though far from raw, and enters the match as Tri-Nation champion. It has also a number of the players - Quade Cooper, Will Genia and Digby Ioane among them - who won the Super 15 title with the Queensland Reds.
"The last word you'll use when you talk about Quade Cooper is 'predictable,''' South Africa center Jean de Villiers said. "He's a quality player. We'll have to be on the look out and expect anything from him.''
Those successes are substantial planks in the edifice of the Wallabies' confidence.
Even the uncontrollable issue of the weather will impact on the match, largely because of the divergence in the team's styles. If it is wet, as it has been in Wellington all week, it may suit the Springboks forwards; if dry, it might favor the Wallabies backs.
"If it's wet and raining and windy in the stadium, it will possibly play into our hands because it might nullify their quick, nippy backs,'' Springboks forwards coach Gary Gold said. "But I think it's swings and roundabouts. There's aspects of that that may not work for us, for example kicks at (goal). I think it's going to be a very tight game and I think kicks are going to be important, so it's going to make life difficult for our kickers.''
Until recently, the Springboks might have been expected to dominate the Wallabies forwards, but that wasn't so in Tri-Nations matches this season - although South Africa fielded weakened teams. Still, Australia has improved in the setpiece, particularly scrums, its bugbear.
"I say this with respect: Australian teams can live physically with the best teams in the world at the moment,'' Gold said. "I'm not necessarily sure that was the case four or five years ago.
"With it they've got, obviously, youth - they're a very young side - and with it they've got athleticism, so they're a team with exciting backs who can move you around the park and they've got forwards who can keep up with them.''
Gold said the breakdown would likely be the definitive area, but South Africa would not give up on the scrum as a point of advantage.
"Look, the issue is we're going to have to exploit everything we can if we want to win this game,'' he said. "They're not Tri-Nations champions for nothing.
"They've played the top two teams in the world this season and they've beaten us both, and they're an outstanding outfit and every aspect of our game is going to have to be razor sharp if we want to come out on top.''
Autralia coach Robbie Deans has been able to select a full-strength lineup after contending with injuries throughout pool play. The return of winger Digby Ioane especially is of significance as the Wallabies attack hinges to some extent on his presence and he stiffens their defense.
"The knockout phases of the World Cup are completely different to every other type of rugby we play,'' Deans said. "The stakes are higher, the intensity greater and the margins between success and failure smaller.''
Australia: Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Pat McCabe, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Radike Samo, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom, Dan Vickerman, James Horwill (captain), Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu. Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Nathan Sharpe, Ben McCalman, Luke Burgess, Berrick Barnes, Anthony Fainga'a.
South Africa: Pat Lambie, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez; Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Victor Matfield (captain), Danie Rossouw, Gurthro Steenkamp, John Smit, Jannie du Plessis. Reserves: Bismarck du Plessis, CJ van der Linde, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Francois Hougaard, Butch James, Gio Aplon.