The Springboks might surprise the All Blacks if Fourie du Preez and Duane Vermeulen go the distance in the World Cup semi-final on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Nobody is backing the Boks to win at Twickenham. There’s a better chance of the second semi-final between Argentina and Australia on Sunday ending in an upset. New Zealand versus South Africa? A Bok win is possible, but not probable. Realistically, who is going to bet on that result?
There’s been a desperate optimism about the Boks this week. It’s a different type of energy to what characterised the buildup to their Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks at Eden Park in September 2013.
That was a special week for Test rugby. At that point, the Boks were on a nine-game winning streak. They had just recorded their first-ever win at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. They had dominated the Wallabies up front and scored three out of four tries through their backs.
There was reason for them to feel confident about their ability to claim a rare win at the New Zealand stronghold. There was reason for the All Blacks to feel nervous about losing their first match at home since 2009. Throughout that week, rugby fans on both sides of the rivalry agreed that the Boks were well placed to push the All Blacks to the limit.
The buildup to the 2015 World Cup semi-final has been very different. The energy in the Bok camp, and indeed among the South African supporters, is one of hope rather than conviction.
Maybe the Boks will win if X happens or Y transpires. There isn’t the same conviction there was in 2013; a conviction that was based on past performances and results.
Consider the Boks’ run-in to the 2015 World Cup semi-final. South Africa have lost to Ireland, Wales, Argentina and Japan in the space of 11 months.
The defeat to Ireland was the Boks’ first since 2009, and the loss to Wales only the second in their history. They went down to the Pumas for the first time ever, and by a 37-25 margin at home. They’re still scratching their heads over the 34-32 loss to Japan on the opening weekend of the 2015 World Cup.
That said, the Boks have been a different side since scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and Duane Vermeulen returned to the starting lineup in the second pool match against Samoa. That neither Du Preez nor Vermeulen were 100% fit for that clash speaks volumes for the Boks’ levels of desperation.
Somehow, these two players managed to play through the pain and drag the team through the next three pool games. In the quarter-final against Wales, Du Preez and Vermeulen combined for the game-clinching try that catapulted the Boks into the semi-finals.
Du Preez and Vermeulen are world-class players, and are starting to hit some form. If there is a hope for the Boks this coming Saturday, it will centre around the scrumhalf’s tactical kicking and the No 8’s decision-making at the breakdowns and collisions.
Some have said that New Zealand are yet to be tested. The All Blacks cruised through the pool stage. They made a series of handling errors but still romped to comfortable victories over Argentina, Georgia, Namibia and Tonga. They moved up a gear in the quarter-final to smash a poor France side 62-13.
The same is true of the Boks in the sense that Du Preez and Vermeulen haven’t played against Rugby Championship opposition for some time. Du Preez featured at the back-end of the 2013 tournament, while Vermeulen last featured in the big win against the All Blacks in October 2014. Both will need to step up this Saturday for the Boks to have any chance of an upset.
Du Preez will depend on Vermeulen and indeed the entire Bok pack to set the platform. South Africa will be boosted by the news that Tony Woodcock as well as Wyatt Crockett are not available for this clash. In a rain-affected, set-piece oriented World Cup semi-final, Joe Moody's strengths in open play will count for little. Moody hasn’t had everything his own way when battling the South African scrum over the past two years.
New Zealand will fancy their chances at the lineout in the first half. Sam Whitelock has supplanted Victor Matfield as the world’s top lineout manager and contester on opposition ball. Lood de Jager has shown some promise over the past few games, but may not better Whitelock.
Can the All Blacks use this set-piece advantage to make inroads at the gainline? They have a great back row on paper, and the referee Jérôme Garcès will allow the breakdown contest to develop.
The Boks will need to maintain their discipline, on attack as well as defence. They have to ensure that they win the collisions and then clean out the likes of Richie McCaw and Dane Coles at the breakdowns.
Vermeulen has added grunt and direction to the Bok defence since returning from injury. Together with Francois Louw, he will be tasked with matching McCaw and company at the rucks. It promises to be a fascinating battle. Whoever adapts to the referee on the day – and let’s be honest, Garcès himself probably won’t know about how he wants to manage the breakdown until he gets to the ground – will prosper.
The Boks have to tick the boxes at the set pieces, collisions and breakdowns to stand a fighting chance in this match. South Africa needs front-foot ball for their game plan to function.
If the Bok forwards fire, the All Blacks' famed kicking game will be compromised. If Aaron Smith and Dan Carter are under pressure, they will fail to launch those box kicks and tactical probes to any great effect. They will battle to expose the weakness of Willie le Roux under the high ball. Indeed, the maverick Bok fullback could well punish their inaccuracies with a strong counter-attack.
Not that we should expect a great deal of running this Saturday at Twickenham. Bryan Habana needs one more try to surpass Jonah Lomu as the most prolific try-scorer in World Cup history, while Julian Savea is one score away from breaking the record for the most tries in a single global tournament. But with wet weather forecast, it could come down to the goal-kickers rather than the wingers to make any forward advantage count on the scoreboard.
Handré Pollard held his nerve to nail four kicks off the tee as well as a drop goal in the quarter-final against Wales. However, there will be some concern over the three attempts he missed. One wasted opportunity this weekend, and the Boks may bow out of the title race.
Dan Carter, the most prolific goal-kicker in the history of the game, will be representing the All Blacks. He has found some form over the past few matches and will be the favourite to edge the battle against his 21-year-old opponent.
And yet this duel will be shaped by the forward clash as well as the decision-making of the respective No 9s. As long as Du Preez and Vermeulen remain on the park, the Boks will have a chance of winning this game.
The Boks have shown enough over the past four matches to suggest they can match the fitness of the All Blacks in an 80-minute contest. South Africa also have enough quality in reserve to maintain their physical effort over the course of a match.
What the Boks can’t do is play catch-up rugby. They have to ensure they are leading at half-time to have any say in the outcome. It’s in the second half, and specifically in the last 20 minutes, when the All Blacks accelerate.
All the momentum is with the All Blacks. They have the personnel. They’re primed to peak. They should win this semi-final and go on to lift their second consecutive world title.
But for at least 80 more minutes, the Boks will hang on to some hope. We witnessed a miracle in Brighton on 19 September when Japan felled the Boks. The 2015 World Cup story may have at least one more twist in store.
HEAD TO HEAD
All Blacks 52, Springboks 35, Draw 3
VERMEULEN’S WORLD CUP STATS THAT MATTER
4 – Matches played
19 – Carries over gainline
240 – Metres made
11 – Defenders beaten
28 – Tackles made
90 – Tackle success rate percentage
3 – Turnovers won
FOURIE DU PREEZ'S WORLD CUP STATS THAT MATTER
5 – Matches played
Runs – 24
349 – Passes
42 – Kicks from hand
15 – Tackles
83 – Tackle sucess rate percentage
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez (c), 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)