Johannesburg – The Highveld “altitude factor” has become
something of a cliché in rugby terms, for the way it supposedly favours home
causes in major matches against overseas opposition.
Sometimes you suspect that just a part of this legend
amounts to, well, hot air ... that it is a psychological bogey to throw at
visiting teams in the hope that it plants a virus of fear and uncertainty.
And of course outfits from New Zealand or Australia, whether
at Test or Super Rugby level, have increasingly been able to pooh-pooh its
importance by securing some majestic wins of their own at altitude, actually
revelling in the faster pace of the game, greater distance on kicks and rock-hard
nature of pitches.
Yet the very fact remains that this city does lie at some
1,750m, and sides from the northern hemisphere - far more so than the other elements
of the SANZAR alliance these days -- play particularly seldom in that
People in South Africa a tad anxious about the Springboks’
prospects for the first Test against England in Durban last Saturday pointed to
dubious scheduling: they had a point in their argument that it might have been
better, what with the Bok side cobbled together so quickly and under the new
management of Heyneke Meyer and company, to open proceedings on the Highveld.
Whatever the itinerary merits or demerits, South Africa
prevailed fairly convincingly in Durban and money has since shifted even
further, it seems, toward the Boks putting an early seal on the three-Test
series at Coca-Cola Park this weekend before the return to coastal conditions
in Port Elizabeth.
It was interesting noting the views of the neutral panel on New
Zealand television talk show Re:Union this week ... the consensus among anchor
Tony Johnson, Grant Nisbett and Jeff Wilson was that with Mr Price Kings Park
out of the way, England “shouldn’t have a prayer” in the Big Smoke.
England’s Test side is in a rebuilding phase, of course, so
currently contains notably few world-wise customers with good knowledge of
various points of the compass, and the intimidating Doornfontein venue – the
Boks’ symbolic heartland where they sport a 70% win record after 43 Tests –
undoubtedly will strongly examine their mental and physical parameters.
At a media briefing this week, coach Meyer played down the
importance of the Boks turning out this weekend at a ground they are obviously
“Firstly I think England are a quality side and I have a lot
of respect for their team and coaching panel, so I don’t really see it as such.
“Every single game is a Test match; that’s why these games
are branded exactly that. We know we need to keep our feet on the ground and be
very focussed. Altitude is to our advantage, definitely ... but that, and the
stadium or the people in it don’t win the Test match for you.”
If Meyer indeed wants to keep his men from picking up
pre-game complacency, he might do well to remind them of what happened the last
time a Test was staged at the ground – that was in July three years ago when
the British and Irish Lions won the dead-rubber final Test by a convincing
Not only that, but the previous week they came within a
whisker of winning the second Test also at altitude when they were denied in a
late, late Bok show 28-25 at Loftus.
The only convincing Springbok victory of that series,
curiously, had also come in a Durban-based first-Test scenario.
So the English management are sure to remind their charges
that the Highveld factor can be more or less tamed by men from their chillier
and lower-lying climes.
With the 2009 series already wrapped up, then-Bok coach
Peter de Villiers controversially made many changes to his line-up for
Coca-Cola Park, and they put in a disjointed performance as the Lions salvaged
a fair bit of pride.
The only starting Bok “survivors” of that occasion this
Saturday will be loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira and flyhalf Morne Steyn.
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