Test of ‘resilience’ awaits Wallabies at Springboks fortress
If it is a test of their World Cup credentials they are after, the Wallabies have that and more in store in their opening Rugby Championship Test in Johannesburg in two weeks' time.
Australia haven't played at Ellis Park since suffering their worst-ever loss there in 2008 (58-3) and in 10 Tests at the Springboks' fortress, they have come away with a win only once, in 1963 (11-9).
Nelson Mandela presents Francois Pienaar with the World Cup at Ellis Park.Credit:AAP
As Wallabies coach Michael Cheika put it ahead of the squad's Sunday departure, Ellis Park is the "big stage" in South Africa.
"It's going to be unreal," Cheika said. "I've coached NSW there once but never a Test match and that's the big stage there in South Africa. I'm sure in a World Cup year it's going to be a great atmosphere."
Ellis Park is where Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis trophy after South Africa beat the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup final.
The pitch is three stories below ground level and its grimy downtown setting further adds to the hostile atmosphere. Very few Test teams are successful at Ellis Park. In 40 years only New Zealand, France and a British and Irish Lions side have pulled off a win.
Adding further pressure is that the July 20 Test will kick off the formal, visible part of Australia's World Cup preparations.
They have been snatching moments together through mini-camps and gatherings all year but their Monday arrival in Johannesburg – Brumbies players included – marks the start of the real thing.
Fortress: The Wallabies have not beaten the Springboks at Ellis Park since 1963. Credit:AP
There are only five games remaining between now and the Wallabies' opening pool game against Fiji on September 21. A Rugby Championship opener at a ground famous for burying the hopes of visiting nations will be just what Cheika is after.
He invoked the same word used by England coach Eddie Jones, who said last year that "resilience" was the most important attribute a rugby team could possess in a Test at Ellis Park.
"I know a lot in footy people say 'we're excited', but 'anxious', 'nervous', it all comes together and that fuels you to play better," Cheika said. "In those types of atmospheres, where there's going to be a few gold jerseys out there but they're never going to outweigh the opposition, that's where you've got to be resilient, in that sort of cauldron.
"That's the best preparation for us to be having – not that these Tests are preparation – but it's the best experience to be having before what else is to come this season."
In those types of atmospheres … that's where you've got to be resilient, in that sort of cauldron.
Two members of the current Australian set-up have played Test footy there. Adam Ashley-Cooper was fullback when the Robbie Deans-coached Wallabies were hammered 53-8 in 2008. It is still the team's worst ever Test defeat.
Former Test centre Nathan Grey, now defence coach on Cheika's staff, came off the bench there in 1998, when five Matt Burke penalty goals were Australia's only contribution to the scoreboard in a 29-15 loss.
Test prop Tom Robertson scored a try at Ellis Park during the Waratahs’ semifinal loss to the Lions at Ellis Park last year. Credit:AP
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who played in and lost a Super Rugby semi-final there with the Waratahs last year, agreed it was good preparation for a team over which hangs many question marks.
"It's an unusual place … I'm really excited, it's a great challenge and it's a place that could replicate some of the stuff that we see in the back end of the year," Hooper said. "[It will be] warm, it's an afternoon game, it's quite hostile. So preparing us for some of the stuff that we may see at the back end of the year (in Japan)."
An extra week of training outside the city before the official Test week begins next Monday will give Cheika and fellow selectors plenty of time to mull their selection choices.
"It's always helpful to get attuned to the climate over there," Hooper said. "It's sunny and low in oxygen every day, so we get a taste of that with two weeks there, just to get around each other. It's going to be great time spent together on and off the field."
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