Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby World Cup: Knockout kings front up for battle

Digby Ioane is in the Wallabies side to face South Africa tonight. Photo / Getty Images
Digby Ioane is in the Wallabies side to face South Africa tonight. Photo / Getty Images

More than anything else, the Wallabies-Springboks clash today is a meeting of the knock-out kings in the Rugby World Cup quarter finals.

These are the two most successful Rugby World Cup teams in history, which makes the result doubly tough to predict. Since 1991, the All Blacks have played 10 knockout matches for a modest five win-five loss record, with three of those wins coming against Scotland (twice) and Canada. In contrast, South Africa have lost just twice (7-2) at the sudden death stage - once to Australia in 1999 - while the Wallabies have an 8-3 record over the same period.

One of those proud records will take a dent today. Robbie Deans has copped plenty of deserved criticism over his reign but he has at least managed to reverse the historical dominance of the South Africans.

The Wallabies have won four of their last five matches against the Rainbow Nation, with the Springboks' last win coming in Pretoria last August.

The Australians will take particular heart from the last encounter in Durban, when they withstood a desperate South African team.

Since then, though, they have lost a certain joie de vivre - with Quade Cooper and Will Genia not looking as assured as earlier this year. Deans was unwilling to risk a Cooper-Berrick Barnes combination early in the match given their perceived defensive limitations - but look for Barnes to make an entrance at some stage, with his solid kicking game and distribution skills vital later in the match.

Before this World Cup, South Africa had never won in Wellington - with five straight losses to the All Blacks - but wins against Wales and Fiji have given them more comfort in the capital.

Curiously enough, South Africa have played 13 matches on a Sunday dating back to 1995 and have yet to taste defeat on the Sabbath.

However, if the Australians can win, they will set up a bit of a case of Advance Australia Fear in New Zealanders. A victory today means a transtasman match at Eden Park on Sunday. While they have flattered to deceive so far in this tournament and have been hit hard by injuries, the Wallabies are still the team most New Zealanders would prefer not to face.

Their unpredictable elements can rattle the All Blacks and their lightning backline can hurt anybody. They have won two of the last three transtasman matches and have had time to regroup since the shock Irish defeat.

Still, South Africa will be formidable opponents. Of all the major nations in this tournament, the Springboks were arguably the most impressive in the group stages.

They took care of a Welsh team that has since proved to be a force and destroyed Fiji. They also withstood a ferocious Samoan onslaught, repelling a physical threat that few teams could have lived with.

Everybody knows the South African game plan - based around their huge forwards and the prodigious kicking game of Morne Steyn - but that doesn't make it any easier to stop.

They flirted with a wider game against Fiji and the talents of Patrick Lambie, Bryan Habana and Jaques Fourie can create threats but they are most comfortable when reverting to their direct game.

Their starting XV boast a combined total of 823 caps, making them the most experienced Springbok side in history.

They will miss the confrontational, on-the-edge play of Bakkies Botha but replacement Danie Roussow has been one of their best performers at this tournament. John Smit will play his world record 83rd match as captain. Meanwhile, Stephen Moore, Digby Ioane and David Pocock return to the Wallaby fold; the trio who were sorely missed against Ireland.

- Herald on Sunday

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