Brisbane, Australia – Zane Kirchner is prepared to do whatever it takes to redeem himself – and reward the faith invested in him by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer – with a standout performance against Australia in a crunch Rugby Championship Test here on Saturday.
“It’s about proving him right, and about proving myself right,” Kirchner told reporters after being named at fullback in his first Test start this year.
The South African rugby public fell in love with Cheetahs gunslinger Willie le Roux during the Super Rugby competition, and Kirchner – who was sidelined for two months after undergoing surgery to repair a broken finger – has since been written off as a dreary fullback option who lacks imagination.
When confronted with the pervasive, negative public sentiment, the 29-year-old paused several times during the interview process, often evading eye contact as he worked to keep a lid on emotions bubbling just below the surface.
“I don’t really read the newspapers ...” he said. “But sometimes it really frustrates you, in terms of everybody thinking that me playing at the back means there’s more of a kicking game coming.”
Kirchner loses points for thrill-factor because he takes far fewer risks than Le Roux. But that also means that Kirchner makes far fewer mistakes and, in Test rugby, mistakes are the difference between winning and losing.
“Test rugby is always going to be tactical in terms of where you play the percentages, territory-wise,” said the 24-Test Bok. “But back home everyone’s got a perception that I’m the fullback in SA rugby that kicks the most.
“If you look at the stats, that’s not true. And if you look at how many times the number one fullback in the world kicks,” he said, alluding to All Blacks No 15 Israel Dagg, “nobody complains about that.”
“I don’t want to be rude, because you always need the people behind you...” added Kirchner. “But judge me according to what’s been done and not what’s been said.”
Meyer said: “There’s a perception with Zane that he’s only a kicking fullback, but if you look at all the teams he’s played for, even in Super Rugby, they’ve scored close to the most tries,” said Meyer.
“Last year we scored 22 tries and the Wallabies scored 13 tries, and Zane was the fullback. At Loftus Versfeld (where South Africa beat Australia 31-8 last year), Zane scored one of our five tries, and if you look at Super Rugby stats in the past, he’s always been up there with the guys that score the most tries.
“He’s a clinical fullback, he can attack if there’s an opportunity, he can defend and he’s very good under the high ball.
“Sometimes people read too much into selections – we scored nine tries against Argentina (in Soweto) and a week later, with the same backline, we scored one.”
w Israel Folau will be patrolling the space in behind the Wallabies at the Suncorp Stadium, but that won’t change the way South Africa play, according to Meyer.
“He’s an unbelievably great player and superb counter-attacker,” Meyer said yesterday. “As a coach, you teach the guys to take the right options, but you don’t go into a game and say ‘Folau is there, so kick less because he can counter-attack’.
“You coach the team to read the situation. If the fullback and wing are up then you kick more, and if they hang back you attack more. Obviously, if he’s out of position you take the space... but he’s a brilliant counter-attacker (so you have to be careful).”
Ewen McKenzie has recalled flyhalf Quade Cooper to start and the Wallabies coach has shifted rugby league convert Folau to fullback in a backline brimming with accomplished playmakers and incisive runners.
“It was just a question of time before Quade would play,” said Meyer. “He and Ewen have travelled a long road together.”
McKenzie unleashed Will Genia and Cooper in a potent tactical combination that directed the Reds all the way to the 2011 Super Rugby title.
“The way the Reds played (then) is all full-out attack, and this team is a really full-on attack team,” added the Bok coach. “It’s one of the best backlines we’ve faced, not just this year.
“They’re obviously going to move the ball with Folau at fullback, they’ll go wide and then attack against our forwards on the blind. I’ve always rated Nick Cummins (on the wing)... and one thing (you can see) they also looked for, their back-three are very good under the high ball.”
With all the talk of attack, Meyer gave the impression that South Africa were loading up for a shootout at Suncorp Stadium, but he was actually highlighting how decisive bulletproof defence would be.
“I believe that if you want to win this game you need to be able to make 150 tackles, which is a lot of tackles in Test match rugby.”
It’s twice as many tackles as South Africa or Australia made in each of their Rugby Championship matches to date.
“We know they’ll really attack because they know we’ve travelled, so they’ll try to move the ball around and tire our forwards out. We know what to expect, but stopping that is going to be difficult.”
The British Lions struggled to stop Folau from fullback, and the All Blacks consequently made a point of kicking away from the “freak athlete”, as Cooper refers to him.
Solid first-time tackles are not guaranteed to nullify Folau’s offloading ability, and anything less will allow the 1.95m power-runner to break containment, extend South Africa’s 42-year drought in Brisbane and gift wrap McKenzie’s first win as Wallabies coach.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Lealifano, 11 James O’Connor, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill (capt), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper. Bench: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Jesse Mogg.
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Bench: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandré Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Referee: George Clancy (Ire). Kickoff: 12.05pm SA time.