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Jake White has his say on Loftus' Rugby Champs opener

OPINION: This weekend’s Test between South Africa and Australia at Loftus Versfeld is a tough one to call writes former Springboks head coach Jake White.

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On the one hand, the Wallabies are on a run of seven consecutive defeats, but losing runs are there to be broken and in Eddie Jones, the Wallabies have a coach who specialises in going into an environment and changing things up – you can’t deny that.

He did it with Japan and he did it with England.

Eddie is very shrewd with his soundbites and the message is loud and clear; they want to come to our fortress and make history. To conduct a smash and grab. There’s no doubt it will be a historic moment if Australia can do it and that injection of energy can kickstart a renaissance.

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So what can you expect from the Wallabies?

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Having coached the Brumbies, and an array of Australian players, what I’ve learnt is that will always back themselves to outsmart you. They pride themselves on that. It’s not a case of gimmicky trick plays, more about doing things you don’t expect. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how they come at the Boks. I could easily see them running the first kick-off and having a crack from their own goal line to set the tone for the Test match.

In the last two years, defensively, they’ve always drifted but it wouldn’t surprise me if, at the first defensive set, they charge as hard as they can to spook the Springbok playmakers into a different attacking set. You have to remember that a lot of their players have played an array of codes Down Under, like Aussie Rules or NRL, so they have a really diverse skillset. They think differently.

In the last few months Jones will have been furiously pooling any experts he could find, from as many sports as possible, to flood his players with the information they need. In essence, if they can’t be smarter, at least walk out in Pretoria thinking they’re smarter. It will be some achievement if they can pull off a result because some very good sides have come here, fluffed their lines and gone home with their tails between their legs.

As for the Boks, what’s wonderful about rugby is all the speculation and conjecture. Fans will scream, ‘Don’t show too much’, or ‘Keep your cards close to your chest when you get to a World Cup’. The reality is it doesn’t work like that because the one thing we all know is you need momentum going into a tournament. Any side on a bad run with a series of losses or an injury crisis is already on the back foot.

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Eddie Jones’ appointment makes it a completely different challenge from what they faced last year under Dave Rennie. The form book massively favours the Boks.

In 2022, the Wallabies had some horrendous results before Rennie was shown the door. They had lost to Italy and got walloped by Argentina. They were at an all-time low. If the status quo had not changed, I doubt there would have been much confidence in the Australia camp leading up to this Test.

You wonder what kidology is at play here, because looking at the Bok side, it seems far from full strength, yet there are still 10 World Cup winners, which is phenomenal.

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Wearing my Bulls franchise cap, there are 14 locally based players out of the 23-man squad, which is probably the most they’ve had in a long time. That is surely a promising sign for the longer-term health of South African rugby.

It brought a smile to my face seeing Duane Vermeulen captaining the side. As captain of the Bulls, he always found Loftus a happy hunting ground, so in many ways, his selection is very much a sentimental choice. Everyone is fully aware that the next few months is his swansong. Some players wilt under pressure but knowing Vermeulen, it will likely bring the best out of him.

Supporters are openly questioning whether he can make the 33-man squad next month, so these next few weeks are make or break. He knows Evan Roos and Deon Fourie are waiting on the bench to make an impression, so this is the time for him to put his hand up and stake a claim for a World Cup place.

There has been a lot of chat about Jean Kleyn’s return. I watched a podcast with Brian O’Driscoll, talking about what is required to play in the engine room with Ireland. The bottom line is that the skillset Jean Kleyn possesses is probably better suited to the Bok team than Andy Farrell’s side. Saying that his game has markedly improved since he went to play for Munster.

Ireland haven’t missed a trick but Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have shown their street smarts and got it right. They pulled Jason Jenkins into camp during the November Series to get his IP on what Leinster did, and now they’ve got Munster’s Rudolf Snyman and Kleyn to give them the inside track. Remember they have to circumnavigate the pool stages with a very buoyant Ireland in their way. That’s what canny coaches do; they find an edge.

If, and it’s a big if, the Boks did lose, the one caveat they do have is that it’s not a full-strength side. There’s no Handre Pollard or Siyamthanda Kolisi through injury. No Eben Etzebeth or Cheslin Kolbe. No Malcolm Marx or Francois de Klerk and Steven Kitshoff was only pulled in at late notice. Of course, that excuse will only go so far with the South African public but what the Springboks are saying to the Wallabies is, ‘psychologically, what sort of shape are you in if you can’t even beat a Bok squad with so many changes, it’s only going to get harder from here on in’.

South Africa have been shrewd in their selection because for a lot of these guys; Vermeulen, Cobus Reinach, Deon Fourie, Jean Kleyn and Andre Esterhuizen, this is the last chance saloon. The coaches have already pencilled in 27 or 28 names for France and five or six places are up for grabs.

Take Reinach, they’re resting De Klerk and Herschel Jantjies, so he knows he has to deliver. Jeopardy can motivate players to reach new heights.

The only certainty is uncertainty over the next few months and who knows if there will be a Stephen Donald situation during the World Cup. The top sides will have to adapt to absences and if they can thrive, it will give them enormous confidence.

To surmise, I have said for some time the Boks will definitely try to replicate what they achieved in 2019. Similar to when Clive Woodward was coaching England and he was repeatedly told it was the ‘same old boring England’, he ignored them and stuck to what he believed in and look what happened. They went on to win a World Cup.

Yes, Kurt Lee-Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe’s may give the Boks some cutting-edge out wide but whatever you think might be the case, look at the names not playing; Marx, Francois Mostert, Lodewyk de Jager.

That’s what’s coming for you. That’s the recipe. It works. So what’s the point of changing it?

By Jake White, Rugbypass

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