Whether Dale Steyn sees the Australian team as a snake or a ship, his intention is to stop them simply by stopping Steven Smith.

"If you can cut off the head of the snake, the rest of the body tends to fall," Steyn said at the series launch in Perth. "We've done that in the past. We've tried to attack the captain because he is the leader and if we can cause a bit of chaos there, sometimes it does affect the rest of the guys."

Targeting the opposition captain has long been an Australian trick. Mitchell Johnson did it to Graeme Smith. Shane Warne did it to Hansie Cronje and Shaun Pollock. But Steyn has already begun to turn the tables. The batsman he has dismissed the most in world cricket is Michael Clarke - nine times in 14 matches although not all of them when Clarke was captain - and now he has Smith in the firing line as South Africa seek a third successive series win down under.

"Aussie captains lead the attack. From history, you look at guys that are great players like Steve Waugh, he stands out. I don't think many people can name a team underneath him but you remember Steve Waugh," Steyn said, forgetting Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Glenn McGrath and Warne.

"You can remember Ricky Ponting, and Michael Clarke and then Steven Smith falls into that bracket. The moment you can get hold of your captain, the rest of the players rely heavily on him. He leads the ship so when you pull the plug on that kind of ship, and he's holding it, you can sink it. It's not very easy but there's a way to sink it."

In 2012, South Africa felled Australia by frustrating Ponting. He was limited to 32 runs in three Tests, his waning powers picked at by everyone. Ponting was dismissed twice by the short ball, twice by the swinging one and finally by Robin Peterson, whom he flattered by playing for turn that was never going to be there.

Smith, who has enjoyed some of the best form in world cricket in the last two years, is unlikely to prove as soft. But there are weaknesses in his captaincy as a Test whitewash in Sri Lanka and an ODI whitewash in South Africa might suggest. South Africa are looking to exploit that.

"They are probably a little bit hurt after Sri Lanka and especially after coming to South Africa and losing 5-nil," Steyn said.

Although he did not go as far as to say South Africa have a clear edge over Australia, Steyn was comforted by the team's record at the WACA - unbeaten after three matches - and their extensive preparation.

"When it comes to being on top of the Australians, you never quite feel like that. Even if you've beaten them for 365 days in a row, come the 1st of January the next year, they are up for it," he said. "But the mood in the camp is really good. The guys are comfortable, we've been here for almost two weeks."

That much preparation is unheard of considering how packed the cricket calendar is. Some might even think Australia have been particularly generous to their opposition, providing two practice matches before the start of the series on November 3. But one of them was to allow South Africa to learn about the pink ball ahead of the day-night Test in Adelaide on November 24. And the other was against an under-strength opposition with most of Australia's Test specialists playing the first round of the Sheffield Shield.

Nevertheless, it gave South Africa enough time to acclimatise. Batsmen Stephen Cook, Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, both spinners Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj and fast bowler Kagiso Rabada are on their first Test tour of Australia. But Steyn thinks at least one of them is more than ready.

Rabada, who debuted against Australia in a T20 series two years ago, is the man Steyn thinks could be the difference between the two sides.

"It doesn't feel like KG has been in this team for a long time but it's actually almost three years now so he's learned a lot and he's an incredible talent," Steyn said. "He's always looking to learn and his record is pretty amazing for such a young guy, especially a bowler. You only see bowlers tend to come into their stripes at maybe 26 or 27, especially fast bowlers. I think he's got about 10 years of experience in three years which is really great. I'm excited to see what he can do because in Adelaide the other night he was bowling really quick and he was landing the ball exactly where he wanted to."

Rabada led South Africa's attack in Steyn and Vernon Philander's absence last summer and was one of very few positives in an otherwise disappointing season. But South Africa do not see themselves as a team that has tumbled to No.1 to No.7 (and who have now crawled back up to No.5). They see themselves as a team that has had success in Australia and are using that to spur their youngsters on.

"The guys who have never played any cricket here in Australia, who are on their first Test tour, are coming here with a good feeling because the other guys that have been here have done well. Its not that feeling that in the past where we feel like we've been donnered (beaten up) and have our tails between our legs. We come here with some good history."

Australia have better history overall though, and Smith will be well aware of that. He will know that successful Australian teams have been successful because their leader was strong and that if he can counter South Africa, his men may be able to do the same.

"I think they are going to come hard in terms of cricket. Their bowlers are going to be hitting hard lengths, coming past the nose, their batters are going to be in our face, they are going to be on the front foot, try and show their dominance," Steyn said. "If we go fist to fist, let's just see who can fight the longest and then you will find your winner."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent