Jean de Villiers's return will boost the Springboks' chances of beating Argentina in Durban this Saturday and ending a three-Test losing streak, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks' Rugby Championship title dreams are in tatters. They lost 24-20 to the Wallabies in Brisbane, and then 27-20 to the All Blacks in Johannesburg. They need to beat the Pumas this coming Saturday to avoid claiming the tournament's wooden spoon.
South Africa have lost their last three Tests. They have lost four of their last six. The only major rugby nation they've beaten during that period is England.
They need to bounce back in Durban, and in Buenos Aires thereafter. What will help their cause is the return of De Villiers, who should strengthen their leadership group as well as their defence in midfield.
The Boks need to take some winning momentum into the 2015 World Cup. They have never lost to the Pumas. A defeat on the eve of the all-important World Cup would be a major mental blow.
That said, the performance will be as important as the result. Coach Heyneke Meyer will be looking to see how De Villiers holds up in what will be his first Test in nine months. It's bound to be a physical encounter in midfield, and De Villiers's knee should get a good workout.
The Boks as a unit have a point to prove after their inconsistent performances against the Wallabies and All Blacks. Their one-on-one tackling and marking has been poor, especially in midfield.
De Villiers replaces Jesse Kriel at No 13. That selection will strengthen the 10-12-13 combination in terms of organisation on defence. The talented but raw pair of Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende will benefit from having the 106-Test veteran on their outside.
Flanker Francois Louw and tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis recently joined a South African sick bay that already includes key players such as lock Victor Matfield, No 8 Duane Vermeulen, flank Willem Alberts and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez. And yet the unavailability of these stars will allow a few promising youngsters to get game time before the World Cup.
Vincent Koch will line up against one of the world's premier scrummagers in Marcos Ayerza. Just as Pollard and De Allende will benefit from De Villiers's presence in midfield, Koch should be better for playing alongside veterans such as Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis in the front row.
Louw's injury has forced Meyer to select yet another new loose-trio combination. Marcell Coetzee was impressive in the two Tests against Argentina in 2014, and the Boks will need him to produce a similarly abrasive performance this Saturday. Heinrich Brüssow and Schalk Burger will also need to get stuck in if the Boks are to outplay the combative Pumas at the breakdown.
It's been rumoured that Argentina have been focusing much of their energy and preparation on the subsequent clash between the two sides in Buenos Aires. The Boks have scrapped to a draw and two narrow wins on the past three tours to South America. The Pumas will feel that their best chance of beating the Boks is in Argentina. They will also have heard that Meyer plans to take a largely experimental side to Argentina next week.
However, the Boks cannot afford to take the Pumas lightly at Kings Park. If they allow Argentina to dominate the forward battle as well as the one in midfield, the result could be another near thing.
Attitude and intent shouldn't be an issue, though. There are too many individuals in that Bok side who have a point to prove regarding World Cup squad selection. This may be the last chance for many to stake a claim.
The Boks should win this Saturday, and by a comfortable margin.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Boks 18, Argentina 0, Draw 1
In South Africa: Boks 8, Argentina 0
STATS AND FACTS
– South Africa have failed to score more than one try in three of their last five games against Argentina.
– The Boks have won five of their last six in Durban, including their last three in a row.
– South Africa have not lost four Tests in a row since 2010. They last lost four in a row against four different nations in 1964-65.
– The Boks have won the most turnovers in this year’s competition (19) and Argentina the fewest (nine).
– South Africa are the only team yet to steal an opposition throw at the lineout.
– The Pumas have the worst ball retention rate at the scrum in the competition thus far (75%).
– Argentina have scored just three points in the opening quarter of their two games this year – a competition low – while the Springboks have conceded just three in that time, the joint-fewest in the tournament.
– South Africa are yet to score a single point in the final quarter of a game this year and have conceded more than any other team in that time (24).
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Argentina – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Jerónimo De la Fuente, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Juan Martín Hernández, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Subs: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Matías Díaz, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Tomás Lezana, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images