Bryan Habana’s anticipation and finishing will come to the fore when the Springboks face a weakened USA side at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
The defeat to Japan seems a long time ago. South Africa smashed Samoa by 40 points in Birmingham. They thumped Scotland by 18 points in Newcastle. Evidently, they’re back on track.
To clarify, this is not the opinion of the coaches or the players. On the contrary, the Boks haven’t completely shaken the self-doubt that engulfed them in the wake of the loss to Japan.
As interim captain Fourie du Preez said on Tuesday, the wins against Samoa and Scotland have changed very little. They remain a desperate and dangerous side. One more victory will guarantee a top-place finish in Pool B. One more defeat may knock them out of the tournament.
South Africa have never lost to the USA, but that record doesn’t matter. The Boks are one loss away from a humiliating group-stage exit. The fear of failure is driving them forward. It will shape everything they do in the coming encounter, particularly in the first 40 minutes. They won’t hold anything back.
Heyneke Meyer’s selections suggest as much. The Boks will field their strongest available side in the first half. The forwards will target the Eagles at the lineouts, mauls and breakdowns. Du Preez and Handré Pollard will kick deep and long. The Boks will pile on the pressure and look to feed off the Eagles mistakes.
Much has been made about the USA’s rush defence that worked so well against Scotland in a previous pool match. And yet that system depends on some sort of forward dominance. If the Boks boss the set pieces as well as the battle at the gainline, the Americans will be on the back foot. In that scenario, the USA’s rush defence won’t be a factor.
The Boks scored four tries against Japan, six against Samoa, and three against Scotland. And yet they are yet to click as a combination. Their finishing certainly needs sharpening.
This is why Meyer has stuck with a similar starting XV for the coming match. Meyer wants the team to build on the performances of recent weeks. He wants a forward display that is just as dominant, and a backline exhibition that is more clinical.
Du Preez and Handré Pollard will have a big role to play in this regard, as will the midfield pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. One would expect these players to create enough opportunities for the back three to score.
Earlier this week, Habana said he would put the team first. The veteran winger said there was more to being a Test winger these days than catching the last pass and crossing the tryline. He said he would endeavour to contribute at the breakdown and at the kick-chase.
The underlying message here is that Habana is looking to get involved. And how often does it happen that when a winger goes looking for work, he receives reward in the form of a try or two.
Habana needs four more tries to surpass Jonah Lomu as the most prolific try-scorer at the World Cup. Four more tries, and Habana will surpass David Campese as the top tier-one try-scorer of all time.
The big question is how long Habana will have to make an impact in this match. Meyer is expected to ring the changes early in the second half to give his fringe players some game time before the play-offs.
Willem Alberts is not a fringe player, but rather a man who has battled with injury and fitness over the past year or so. This is a big opportunity to make a statement about his readiness for the more demanding matches in the play-offs.
Rudy Paige is expected to make his Test debut when he comes off the bench. Morné Steyn will make his return to the Test stage after 13 months on the sideline. Jan Serfontein, who was not selected in the Boks' initial 31-man squad, will have a chance to prove a point.
But much will depend on how the Boks fare in those first 40 minutes. If they build a lead and go to the shed with a 20 to 30-point advantage, the platform will be set. They will then have the opportunity to empty their bench and really ram the advantage home.
HABANA’S STATS THAT MATTER
113 – Test caps
61 – Test tries
12 – World Cup tries
8 – Tries scored at the 2007 World Cup (a record shared with Jonah Lomu for the most at a single tournament)
HEAD TO HEAD
Springboks 3, USA 0
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 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 Schalk Brits, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Jan Serfontein.
USA – 15 Blaine Scully, 14 Brett Thompson, 13 Folau Niua, 12 Andrew Suniula, 11 Zach Test, 10 Shalom Suniula, 9 Niku Kruger, 8 Samu Manoa (c), 7 John Quill, 6 Danny Barrett, 5 Matthew Trouville, 4 Louis Stanfill, 3 Chris Baumann, 2 Phil Thiel, 1 Oli Kilifi.
Subs: 16 Joe Taufetee, 17 Zach Fenoglio, 18 Mate Moeakiola, 19 Titi Lamositele, 20 Cam Dolan, 21 Al McFarland, 22 Mike Petri, 23 Chris Wyles.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images