JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to a vitally important match in the context of the Springboks’ Rugby Championship campaign and overall season.
Earlier this week, a shrill blast of the whistle brought a Bok training session to an abrupt halt. It was clear to those watching from the sidelines that Rassie Erasmus was not a happy man. Thereafter, the players trained with greater intensity, accuracy and purpose.
The Bok coach’s outburst may have served the players – and indeed those watching from the stands on the Kings Park outer fields – with a reminder of what’s at stake on Saturday. Nothing but a victory will signify success for a Bok side that is looking to gather momentum ahead of the more challenging battles in Argentina and Australasia.
The Pumas have been training down the road in Glenwood this week, and the mood of those sessions has been no less intense. Access to the coaches and players has been limited, as has the shooting of drills and team formations.
The word ‘paranoid’ has been used to describe the initial stages of Mario Ledesma’s stint as Pumas coach. Perhaps the visitors believe that a win on South African soil – for only the second time in history – is within their reach. Perhaps that is why they are reluctant to give anything away.
Ledesma and his charges have reason to feel bullish. Under the banner of the Jaguares, the same coach and group of players beat all four of the South African Super Rugby sides in Argentina. While they didn’t enjoy the same success in this country, they won all four of their matches in Australasia.
Past Argentina sides have come to South Africa with a formidable pack of forwards and a decent set of halfbacks. This year, the Pumas head into the Rugby Championship with stars across the board.
Indeed, the Bok defence – which was inconsistent across the June Tests – may be hard-pressed to keep the dangerous outside backs of the Pumas in check. If the hosts lose the set-piece and breakdown battles, and if they go into the second half trailing by a significant margin, they could be in real trouble.
The fixture against Argentina is massively important in the context of the Boks’ season. A win on Saturday would improve the Boks’ chances of claiming at least three wins in the Rugby Championship campaign – for the first time since 2014 – and finishing at a respectable second in the standings.
Success against Argentina home and away would give the Boks confidence and momentum ahead of the away Tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks. It’s been five years since the Boks won in Australia, and nine since they last tasted victory on New Zealand soil.
Overall, Erasmus and company will be aiming for a good overall win record. The Boks won 33% of their Tests in 2016 and 54% in 2017.
The Bok coach’s plans to experiment and develop the squad ahead of the 2019 World Cup may be compromised by poor results. While Erasmus will try a few new things against Argentina on Saturday, victory is the priority.
Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw and Warren Whiteley will play Test rugby for the first time this season. It may take some time for these players – and for Etzebeth in particular, who hasn’t played a competitive game since December – to adapt to the pace of international rugby, and for the pack as a whole to fire as a unit.
Erasmus has spoken about his desire to see fetchers such as Louw and Marco van Staden – who could make his Test debut on Saturday – in the same back-row combination. It will be interesting to see how Erasmus manages his back row, and whether the match situation prevents the Bok coach from going through with any preconceived plans to experiment.
Damian Willemse is expected to get a run at fullback this Saturday. Again, one wonders how Erasmus will manage that back-three combination. Willie le Roux is the most experienced player in the backline, and it may be prudent to move him to the wing when Willemse enters the fray.
How will Argentina respond? While they have some dangerous runners out wide, they also possess an accomplished tactical kicker in Nicolás Sanchez. It wouldn’t surprise to see them testing the inexperienced Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi with the high ball in the early stages, and targeting Willemse at the death. If it rains on Saturday afternoon, the Bok backs should expect a barrage of high bombs.
The first game of the round between the Wallabies and All Blacks in Sydney should be close. If the Boks manage to score a bonus-point victory over Argentina in Durban, they may well finish the round at the top of the Rugby Championship table.
At this stage, however, Erasmus may have more modest ambitions. He may be content with a victory at Kings Park as well as a few answers regarding certain players and combinations.
Stats and facts
o This will be the 27th meeting between the Springboks and the Pumas. South Africa have lost just two of their previous 26 meetings (won 23, drawn one).
o South Africa defeated England 2-1 in June, winning their first two clashes before losing the third. The Springboks haven’t lost consecutive matches on home soil since a run of three defeats from 2015 to 2016 (won 10, drawn one, lost three since).
o The Pumas have lost their last six away games in the Rugby Championship. Only on four occasions in the history of the tournament (including the Tri-Nations) has a side endured a longer losing run on the road (Australia lost 14 between 2002-2008, Argentina lost 10 between 2012-2015, South Africa lost seven between 2001-2004, and between 2005-2008).
o Argentina were one of just two tier-one teams to record a 100% scrum success rate during the June Tests (also Australia), while the Springboks had the best win-rate at the lineout (96%).
o Pieter-Steph du Toit made the most carries of any tier-one player during the June Tests (42), while the Pumas’ Sanchez made the most of any back (39), closely followed by teammate Emiliano Boffelli (38) – according to Opta.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Damian Willemse
Argentina – 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Bautista Ezcurra, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolás Sanchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertanou, 8 Javier Ortego Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Matías Alemanno, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Augustin Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Subs: 16 Diego Fortuny, 17 Santiago Garcia Botta, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Tomás Lavanini, 20 Tomás Lezana, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Juan Cruz Mallia.
Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images