PRETORIA // South Africa and Australia both have unimpressive records to rectify when they meet in the first of their back-to-back Tri Nations matches tomorrow. The Springboks surrendered their title to New Zealand last weekend with a dramatic, late defeat in Soweto - a fourth successive loss for the world champion, who are still winless in this year's competition.
The Wallabies - who have one win from three - will have to come to grips with an even longer losing streak at Pretoria's high-altitude Loftus Versfeld. Australia has not beaten the Boks on the South African highveld for 47 years. Australia enters the match on a high, after winning 30-13 in Brisbane on July 24 in the last meeting, giving them a 1-0 lead in the three-match Nelson Mandela Plate series.
South Africa hopes the traditionally intimidating Loftus, and their lock Victor Matfield, who will gain his 100th Test cap at his home ground, will help halt their losing streak. Last weekend, John Smit's 100th game ended in heartbreak against the All Blacks. "The hurt is always a terrible factor," Smit, the captain, said. "But we can certainly pick ourselves up. It's up to us to make this one special - especially for a guy like Victor."
Morne Steyn, the fly-half, added: "It's not nice to lose four games in a row. The confidence is not where it should be but we still have these two games to go and still have the Nelson Mandela cup to win." Australia are expected to continue with a gameplan centred around their backline playmakers: Quade Cooper, who was recalled to the team yesterday, and Matt Giteau. South Africa will rely on the strength of their forwards and the kicking of the two Steyns, Morne and Francois, the recalled full-back.
Cooper and Giteau are reunited at fly-half and inside centre for the Wallabies after Cooper's return from suspension, and David Pocock, the openside flanker, is highly regarded by the Boks in the battle at the breakdown. "They will rely on a player like Quade Cooper," said Peter de Villiers, the South Africa coach. "We also cannot ignore the impact of David Pocock. He will definitely be a factor."
Morne Steyn, Cooper's opposite number, said: "If you give [Cooper] the space we all know he has got the talent and the skills that any rugby player dreams of. If you give him space there is going to be trouble." But Robbie Deans, the Australia coach, sounded a cautious note, saying rumours regarding Cooper's future - and a possible move to rugby league - could affect his influence and unsettle the team.
"There is a lot at stake and a lot of intensity," Deans said. "The Springboks won't make [Cooper's] life easy. The peripheral stuff will bite him if it is in the forefront of his mind, and subsequently it will bite the team. I hope that's not the case." The Wallabies have to look back to 1963 and their 11-9 win at Ellis Park in Johannesburg for their last success at one of South Africa's high-altitude venues. They conceded 50 points in a 53-8 loss, also at Ellis Park, in 2008 in their last match on the highveld.
Deans, whose team prepared on the coast in Cape Town before flying up to Pretoria yesterday, believes the altitude factor has been exaggerated. "I will say we don't have a great history [at altitude] but the team is familiar with preparing in Cape Town and they enjoy it," Deans said. "It has become routine." Australia has lost all four of their previous games against South Africa at Loftus Versfeld.
* Associated Press