The pressure is on the Springbok loose forwards to make a physical statement against Argentina on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Nelspruit.
The Boks have done their best to remain positive in the lead-up to the Rugby Championship Test against the Pumas. The coaches and players have spoken about the need to crack on after a disappointing series against Ireland this past June.
Head coach Allister Coetzee has batted away suggestions that injuries to key players could hinder the team’s progress over the next few months. At the team announcement on Thursday, Coetzee didn't blink when it was pointed out that the selection of a very green team could be construed as a risk.
The starting XV that has been selected for the Test against Argentina lacks experience. Only five players in that starting side have played more than 20 Tests. Only two players in the backline, namely Bryan Habana and Damian de Allende, have more than 10 caps. The starting combinations in the front row, back row, and back three are untested at this level.
And yet, the Boks will be under pressure to make a step up after a largely underwhelming performance against Ireland in June. They will be under pressure to gel from the outset at the Mbombela Stadium on Saturday.
The good news is that they appear to have their tactical priorities straight. The Boks have looked to hone their defence and kicking game in the buildup to this Rugby Championship tournament. This Saturday, they will give the ball to the Pumas and invite the visitors to attack from their own half. These tactics are hardly revolutionary. Teams that win the territorial battle usually win big matches.
The Boks have the game plan to beat the Pumas this Saturday. As I highlighted in an analysis of the Jaguares earlier this week, the tactically naive Argentinians are often their own worst enemies. While they have impressed many fans with their attacking intent in recent times, they have battled to win consistently against the better teams.
With so many changes, one can’t expect the South Africans to produce a polished performance on Saturday. With Chean Roux replacing defence coach Jacques Nienaber, the Boks are also working with a new defensive system, and it will take time to adapt to that.
While the Boks have the game plan to beat the Pumas, the big question is whether they have the personnel. The Boks certainly have the players to win the set pieces. While Argentina are renowned for their scrummaging, the Jaguares battled in this area in the recent Super Rugby tournament.
The battle at the gainline will determine the flow of the game. And it is here where the Boks may miss powerful players like Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger, who have the ability to win the collisions.
On Thursday, Coetzee came out in defence of openside flank Francois Louw’s contributions as a fetcher. He spoke highly of Oupa Mohoje’s ability as a lineout jumper, and of Warren Whiteley’s mobility. Jaco Kriel, said Coetzee, will add something to the mix when the game opens up in the latter stages.
But at a glance, the starting back row lacks balance and has everything to prove. Mohoje in particular will have a big role to play on defence. The sight of the Pumas expending their energy by attacking from deep within their own half will please the hosts. The Boks won’t, however, want the Pumas to build momentum by winning the gainline battle.
The accuracy of the kicking and chasing will also be key. Johan Goosen has looked sharp in training this week, and is expected to offer the Boks more options at fullback. The sight of Goosen setting off on one of those gliding runs in the outside channels is a joy to behold. In more recent times, Goosen has shown himself to be an excellent tactical kicker for Racing 92 in France.
Habana needs no introduction to the kick-chase strategy made famous by the Bulls and Bok sides of the late 2000s. Ruan Combrinck’s aerial skills should also give South Africa an edge.
That said, the Boks need to ensure that their execution is spot on. Their accuracy and physicality on defence also need to be of a high standard, otherwise the Pumas will destroy them on the counter-attack.
The Bok loose forwards have to keep Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Pablo Matera in check. They can’t allow Facundo Isa to build up a head of steam, and they can’t allow the likes of Nicolás Sánchez and Santiago Cordero space to attack.
Coetzee has promised greater linespeed from the Boks in the coming Test against Argentina. It will be interesting to see how the Pumas cope with that pressure, and if they do resort to using the boot.
There shouldn’t be any talk of bonus points at this stage of the Boks’ development. South Africa haven’t won a Rugby Championship Test since October 2014. They are yet to produce a convincing performance under Coetzee in 2016.
There might, however, be a chance for Habana to add to his try-scoring tally and claim the tier-one Test record for himself. Going into this match, Habana and former Wallabies winger David Campese share the record with 64 tries apiece.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Springboks 20, Argentina 1, Draw 1
In Nelspruit: N/A
STATS AND FACTS
– South Africa have won this tournament three times. The last time they lifted the trophy was in 2009.
– Although the Pumas have won just two of their 21 Rugby Championship games, both victories came in their last four games.
– Argentina will be aiming for back-to-back victories in the competition for the first time.
– The Springboks have lost their last three games in the competition and will be aiming to avoid four consecutive defeats for the first time since 2011.
– Argentina (80%) and South Africa (81%) had the worst scrum success rates in the 2015 competition. Australia and New Zealand enjoyed success rates of 94% and 96% respectively.
– South Africa made 19 clean breaks in the 2015 tournament, fewer than any other team. Argentina beat the fewest defenders (53).
– Nicolás Sánchez needs nine more points to become the fourth Pumas player to reach 400 in Test rugby behind Felipe Contepomi (651), Hugo Porta (651) and Gonzalo Quesada (486).
Springboks – 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Argentina – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Matías Alemanno, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Subs: 16 Julían Montoya, 17 Felipe Arregui, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Guido Petty, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Ramiro Moyano.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images