Gregan wants Boks as parting gift

By Wayne Smith
June 16, 2007

GEORGE Gregan is entirely uncomfortable with the way he is being treated, like an ageing rock star on a farewell tour.

But as he prepares today for his last Test on South African soil, he has in mind a parting gift to his Australia teammates: the shared experience of an away victory over the Springboks.

Barring a possible meeting with them in either the World Cup quarter-final or final, today's opening Tri-Nations Test at Newlands will be Gregan's last chance to square his personal ledger against the Springboks.

He has played them 28 times, more than any other player in history, and he goes into this match at a cloud-shrouded Cape Town with his record tantalisingly poised at 13 wins, one draw and 14 losses.

But the Wallabies halfback insists it is not himself he is worrying about.

"This is my last chance here but, if we get over the line, the group has a really good shared positive experience and that's going to hold them in good stead for when they come over here the next time," Gregan said. "They can look back on that time and they can say we were under pressure and we came through.

"It would be a nice parting gift, for a lot of reasons. There's a lot to play for."

If there is a recurring theme running through those 13 victories - all but one on Australian soil - it's that the Wallabies cannot shirk the fight.

"I think when you play South African teams you have to be prepared for the physical contest because it's something they pride themselves on," Gregan said.

"It's part of their culture. It's ingrained. You've got to match them in that department."

Specifically, that means unrelentingly challenging the Springboks set pieces and their main attacking weapon, the driving maul.

"You cannot allow them to win that because when they do win that, they build and they get a lot of energy from the home crowd and then they get to that next level," Gregan said. "All of a sudden you're having to work really hard just to stay in the contest.

"You've got to chip away at them, got to sustain it. I don't know the stats of our Tests over here, but I know we wouldn't have lost too many of them by big margins. Often they're still up for grabs in the final minutes."

Realistically, that is the best the Wallabies can hope for, to deny the Springboks forwards the dominance they view as a birthright, force them outside their comfort zone in the backs - this time without having Bryan Habana to fall back on for his customary two tries out of nothing - and then take them to the wire.

It's at that point the old firm of Gregan and Steve Larkham, whose names never fail to surface in any South Africa analysis of what makes the Wallabies so dangerous, will really get to exploit their combined 228 Tests.

Larkham, also saying his goodbyes to South Africa 10 years after first venturing there with the Wallabies, must take charge of proceedings today and ensure captain Stirling Mortlock - a marked man judging from a number of Springboks statements - isn't assigned the same tackling-bag role poor Steve Kefu copped when last the Wallabies played at Newlands, in 2003.

Stubbornly, in complete defiance of all logic, the Australia backs persisted in trying to outflank fast-rushing Springboks centre De Wet Barry by speed of hands and never once succeeded, with Kefu half a dozen times receiving ball and crash tackle simultaneously. By the time Larkham made a belated entry into the match off the bench, the Springboks had gained the ascendancy, holding on to win 26-22.

"We always go into a game with a couple of different contingencies," Larkham said. "Certainly Stirling is a fantastic ball runner who gets us over the gain line but having Matt Giteau in the midfield also gives us another viable option with his speed. So if we find Stirlo is under a bit of heat, then we have other alternatives."

Hopefully, Larkham can release his outside backs, if for no other reason than to see what full back Julian Huxley makes of the toughest assignment of his career.

Coach John Connolly confirmed yesterday Chris Latham will be named as one of two add-ons - along with loosehead Greg Holmes - when the selectors tomorrow name the 30-man squad to prepare for New Zealand in Melbourne on June 30, so Huxley will now have the world's best full back breathing down his neck.

Connolly, remarkably, has no fears whatever about how his novice, three-Test full back, will cope with the twin challenge of Boks and Latham.

"Mentally he feels comfortable out there and he's going to get no bigger challenge in world rugby than Saturday afternoon," Connolly said. "I think he's got a good temperament. Some people come into a squad like this, into a big game and you have doubts on their temperament. I haven't got any doubts about his temperament."

As for the Test position, Latham has been made no promises, despite being one of five finalists for the IRB Player of the Year in 2006.

"We hope it's a really competitive selection and that Latho doesn't automatically get it back. We want a Smith-Waugh battle in every position," Connolly said.

But, for all the strike weapons Australia boasts and is still assembling, it's up front the battle will be won and lost today, with the South African media sneeringly dismissing the Wallabies' front three of hooker Stephen Moore and props Matt Dunning and Guy Shepherdson as "nothing more than an average Currie Cup trio".

Moore, in particular, has come in for ridicule with most commentators here predicting he will implode at lineout time when his throws have to run the gauntlet of the world's best jumper, Victor Matfield.

The young Queenslander, however, is unperturbed, insisting he would treat the Springbok legend as "just another guy in a green jersey".

"I don't really look at the other team," said Moore. "I'm more looking at our guys, particularly when we're moving around and our guys are jumping. He's very good at defensive lineouts. As far as the hooker is concerned, you've just got to put the ball where the jumper is going to go up. That's all you can control. I look straight down the tunnel.

"This will be the biggest game of my career so far. That's what you play for. This is why it's called a Test match. You get tested. But it's been a good week and you can feel the tension building up. The air is crackling."

Stuck in the middle

Greg Growden
Saturday, June 16, 2007

The old firm returns to the Wallabies midfield, writes Greg Growden in Cape Town.

THE old firm are delighted to be back together. It's been there for everyone to see on the training paddock this week. Ageing legs are skipping like novices. They look at each other and do their moves with precision - not surprising since they have been peering left and right at each other for an eternity in sporting terms.

They are so comfortable in each other's company that you don't want to bring it back to earth by pointing out this combination, impressive at provincial and international level at home, is scratchy away from home. Ordinary even, to the extent the George Gregan/Stephen Larkham/Matt Giteau/Stirling Mortlock midfield combination has yet to win a major overseas Test.

That's why there is considerable anxiety revolving around Saturday's Australia-South Africa Test at Newlands. After endless experimentation and attempts to improve on this combination by trying Giteau at No.9 and Larkham and Mortlock at No.12, the selectors have been forced to throw their hands up and go back to square one, the original Wallabies midfield formation.

It's virtually the same midfield combination that Australia fielded in the 2003 World Cup final, except that Elton Flatley was at inside-centre instead of Giteau. Nonetheless, Giteau was still involved, appearing against England when Larkham was in the blood bin.

And it's the same formation that, while near unbeatable in Australia, has a poor away record. On five occasions a Wallabies team with this combination has succumbed to South Africa, New Zealand and France. Their only overseas success was at the end of 2004, when they overhauled the Matt Williams-coached Scotland team in Edinburgh and Glasgow. And despite what the former Waratahs coach may say, Scotland are not top shelf.

More crucially they have failed in Auckland, Johannesburg, Durban and Paris.

The queries are inevitable. Is this combination past its peak? Do the Wallabies really believe that they can bring a World Cup home when three of their key attacking forces are the other side of 30 (Gregan 34, Larkham 33, Mortlock 30)? Does big-match experience override everything? Does the opposition know so much about the combination that it can be nullified? And as it has regularly failed overseas, what hope have they of getting it all together at this year's World Cup in France?

But most importantly if it fails again, where do the Wallabies selectors go?

Should they again prove unable to succeed on the other side of Sydney customs gates there will be damage to the Wallabies' psyche. The selectors have conceded that this midfield is the World Cup attacking formation and the only way they are going to progress is not by looking good on the training paddock, but actually excelling in crucial overseas Tests.

Then again, the sports science eggheads argue that the best way to create a winning team is to formulate a happy team - and Australia are certainly making the right moves in that area. Talk to Larkham, Gregan, Giteau and Mortlock, and they will all stress how enthused they are that they have familiar bodies around them. After all, Larkham and Gregan have been playing together for 12 years. Larkham, Gregan and Mortlock have been hovering around each other for 10 years. Larkham, Gregan, Mortlock and Giteau have been around for five.

As Gregan said: "We have played a lot of football together, and the understanding between us is there. That does gives you some sense of comfort and confidence going into a game."

Larkham, the main link in the partnership, elaborated: "Well, I am certainly very comfortable with this combination," he said on Friday. "Training with Matt this week has seen it all coming back pretty quickly. We had a lot of success when Matt was at No.12 with the Brumbies. We certainly got back into a rhythm very quickly this week, and I do have a very good understanding of his game. Knowing you have skilful players outside you does take a bit of the pressure off in exactly where you need to get the pass.

"The biggest thing for me this week is that even though I haven't played with Matt for a long time in the centres, in our first training together everything clicked straight away. So it is a very good opportunity for us this week to get the old firm together, and put in a really good performance."

Time to mention that poor away record. When the Herald provided the statistics to Larkham, he immediately looked for the positive angle.

"We definitely know we have a better record at home," Larkham replied. "Then again, it is far more difficult to win away from home. Whether we have lost because of that combination, or whether it was right across the board, you don't know. It could have been the refereeing, jet lag, everything comes into effect, I suppose.

"So the way we've approached it this time around is just not talk about it, and pretend there's no problem. And we're not playing at altitude, which does help us a little bit in our preparation. The fact that we're not talking about it, means that it is not weighing on the guys' minds and doesn't give them an excuse."

And if it works on Saturday you should ponder whether when Gregan called out "FOUR MORE YEARS" at the New Zealanders during th 2003 World Cup, Australia's most capped player may not have been having a go at the All Blacks, but merely stating how much longer the old firm would be on the scene.

How Australia have fared with the Gregan-Larkham-Giteau-Mortlock midfield combination.

v South Africa (Brisbane) Won 49-0
v New Zealand (Brisbane) Lost 13-9
v South Africa (Sydney) Won 20-18
v New Zealand (Auckland) Lost 34-27
v South Africa (Johannesburg) Lost 24-16

v Italy (Melbourne) Won 69-21
v France (Brisbane) Won 37-31
v South Africa (Johannesburg) Lost 33-20

v England (Brisbane) Won 51-15
v Pacific Islands (Adelaide) Won 29-14
v South Africa (Perth) Won 30-26
v New Zealand (Sydney) Won 23-18
v South Africa (Durban) Lost 23-19
v Scotland (Edinburgh) Won 31-14
v France (Paris) Lost 27-14
v Scotland (Glasgow) Won 31-17

Won 10, Lost 6.
Home: Won 8, Lost 1
Away: Won 2, Lost 5

A Drew believer

Greg Growden in Cape Town Chief Rugby Correspondent
Saturday, June 16, 2007

A YEAR ago, winger Drew Mitchell was well down the Wallabies pecking order. Though he had enjoyed early Test success aged just 21, coach John Connolly wasn't convinced he was the complete footballer.

So Mitchell became a Wallabies observer, rather than participant. That state of affairs was expected to continue this season - especially as Connolly believed Mitchell was playing out of position at the Western Force, where he was utilised as a fullback. Connolly also had his doubts about Mitchell's maturity, wondering whether too much had come to him too soon.

After making 10 Test appearances in 2005 under Eddie Jones, Mitchell just didn't get a look in last season.

But the 23-year-old has at last convinced Connolly of his worth, and on Saturday has the perfect opportunity to ensure his World Cup squad spot by performing against the Springboks.

Before the Fiji Test in Perth, it was widely assumed Mark Gerrard would partner Lote Tuqiri on the wings in Cape Town. The Brumbies utility left for South Africa early with the Wallabies' advance party, and even Springboks coach Jake White had been preparing his players to face Gerrard.

However, Mitchell played his way into the jersey with a convincing display in the 49-0 triumph over the islanders. Connolly said Mitchell deserved the elevation because he had worked so hard on his game.

"He tightened up his game considerably [against Fiji]," Connolly said. "There's no doubt that, 25 metres out from the line, he's pretty good with ball in hand. But it's the other part of the field that has been a concern.

"We would have liked to have seen him play on the wing for the Western Force, but playing fullback has definitely helped his wing play. He's developed his skills. His breakdown work has been good, and so his form warranted selection."

The Wallabies completed their Test preparation on Friday with a spirited session held in wild and windy conditions near Newlands. They again focused on lineout work, fully realising that if they are found wanting in any area of the set-piece, Victor Matfield - the world's best second-rower - will make them pay.

Wallabies forwards coach Michael Foley is well aware the Test could hinge on side's ability to limit Matfield's impact.

"He's a great source of possession for South Africa, and has also got a very good read of lineout defence," Foley said. "He's an excellent mover, and a very good jumper in his own right. His aerial skills are superb.

"Whereas some defensive lineout jumpers will cover maybe three or four metres maximum, Matfield can probably cover five metres of that 10-metre space of the lineout, which makes it so much easier for his teammates to cover their space."

That's why the Wallabies selectors have kept the pressure on hooker Stephen Moore, generally a good lineout thrower but inconsistent of late. If Moore slips again, Adam Freier, a reliable lineout thrower, will immediately come onto the field.