Duane Vermeulen needs to deliver from the outset if the Springboks are to record a morale-boosting victory against Samoa, writes JON CARDINELLI in Birmingham.
Come the final whistle at Villa Park on Saturday, we will have answers. We will know if South Africa are still in contention for a first-place finish in Pool B, or in danger of exiting the tournament after the pool stage.
We will know whether Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield still have the desire, the physicality, and the tactical intelligence to be of use to the Boks later in the tournament. And we will know if Vermeulen, a player Heyneke Meyer believes to be crucial to any potential success, has recovered from a serious neck injury.
Vermeulen has been sidelined since the business end of the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament. He’s watched from the stands as South Africa have slumped to three consecutive defeats in the Rugby Championship, and then to an earth-shattering loss to Japan in the World Cup opener. The spike in Vermeulen’s frustration levels have contrasted the flagging South African standards at the breakdown and on defence.
Earlier this week, Vermeulen told the Bok medical team that he’s tired of spectating and that he needs to take action. He’s declared himself fit to play in what Meyer and Eddie Jones alike have billed as the most physical clash of the 2015 World Cup.
Vermeulen’s influential performances at the breakdowns and collisions earned him a nomination for the 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year award. It would be unfair to expect Vermeulen to compete at that level this Saturday, following a three-month absence from the game. And yet, the Boks need their No 8 to hit some sort of form.
The Boks failed to win the collisions last week. While they lost very few rucks, they were penalised severely at the defensive breakdowns. The inclusion of Vermeulen should boost the Boks in both departments.
Vermeulen is not only one of the world’s best at the gainline, but one of the better decision-makers on the deck. Of course, Vermeulen and the likes of Francois Louw will need to adapt to the referee, Wayne Barnes, this Saturday. Barnes refereed the game between New Zealand and Argentina this past Sunday, and was particularly hard on the defending team at the breakdown.
The Boks will struggle to win this match if they fail to win the physical battle. And yet, Meyer and indeed the whole of the South African rugby community will be looking for more than physical dominance. They will want to see the Boks using that dominance to good effect and earning reward in the form of territory and points.
This Saturday, we will see if the likes of De Villiers and Matfield, as well as the rest of the senior contingent, have taken Meyer’s tactical message to heart. Will they persist with the game plan that proved so counter-productive against Japan, or will they trust in Meyer’s pragmatic formula that led to some notable victories in 2013 and 2014?
This past week, the players have promised to play smarter. This Saturday, we will see whether there is any truth in those words, or if Meyer has lost control of his team.
Samoa have every right to feel confident. They were not particularly impressive in their 25-16 win against USA recently, and yet, Japan’s performance against South Africa would have got them thinking.
That shock result will have Samoa believing that the Boks are beatable. The Pacific Islanders could go one better than they did at the 2011 World Cup. They could claim victory on the scoreboard as well as a win in the physical stakes.
Samoa coach Stephen Betham has made some interesting selections ahead of the match. Some big-name players in prop Census Johnston, flank Faifili Levave, and flyhalf Tusi Pisi have been named on the bench.
In the past, Samoa have matched South Africa blow for brutal blow for 50 minutes, and then slumped to defeat after a disappointing final quarter. On this occasion, however, Betham will be looking for his charges to shift up a gear in the latter stages.
Samoa will have noted how often the Boks’ efforts have dipped in the second stanza in 2015. South Africa lost to Australia and New Zealand earlier this year due to a poor performance at the death. Their discipline has also been a problem of late. No doubt the Samoans will look to exploit that weakness.
The Boks will aim to inflict as much damage as possible in the first half, through their forwards, and through the multi-talented halfback pairing of Fourie du Preez and Handré Pollard.
The pressure is on Du Preez to deliver a clinical showing, both in terms of his game management and tactical kicking. Pollard needs to step up and show why he is the first-choice No 10 in this Bok group.
The 21-year-old has to produce a quality kicking and decision-making performance. His goal-kicking will also be under the spotlight. The Boks will look to capitalise on any early shots on goal.
A lot needs to go right for the Boks to produce the type of performance that will lift the morale .It’s that long list of ifs and buts that should have every South African rugby supporter on their edge of their seat between now and the final whistle at Villa Park on Saturday.
VERMEULEN’S STATS THAT MATTER
29 – Tests for the Boks.
0 – Tests played in 2015
0 – World Cup matches
7 – Turnovers made in the 2014 Rugby Championship (Rank 1).
HEAD TO HEAD
Samoa 0, South Africa 8
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Samoa – 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Paul Perez, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Mike Stanley, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Ofisa Treviranus (c), 7 Jack Lam, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Zak Taulafo.
Subs: 16 Ole Avei, 17 Viliami Afatia, 18 Census Johnston, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Vav, 21 Vavao Afemai, 22 Tusi Pisi, 23 George Pisi.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Angus Gardner (Australia)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix