A series victory against Wales has given the Springboks momentum as they prepare to host the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, and the world champions may be boosted by the return of two veterans. DYLAN JACK reports.
South Africa sealed a series victory with a comprehensive 30-14 win over Wales in the third and decisive Test in Cape Town on Saturday and, while Jacques Nienaber was pleased with how clinical the Boks were, he says there is work to be done before the Rugby Championship.
Going into the final Test, the Boks were under pressure after a much-changed lineup suffered a 13-12 loss to Wales in Bloemfontein, which came after the hosts needed a last-minute penalty from Damian Willemse to win the first Test 32-29 in Pretoria.
Fielding a more experienced lineup at Cape Town Stadium, the Springboks took their opportunities when it counted, with Handre Pollard scoring a try and enjoying a perfect day off the kicking tee for a haul of 20 points.
Speaking post-match, Nienaber said a major positive to take from the win was how the Boks improved their accuracy and execution.
“Last week, we controlled the game nicely up until the 65th minute. The score was 12-3 and there were a couple of opportunities, but we lost the ball four times between the five-metre line and the try line, in that five-metre space,” the coach said.
“That was our own fault. But that’s the beauty of experience, they have been there before.
“We had a long conversation after last week. We have to learn, when we are in control of the scoreboard and there are 20 minutes left, how do we think. I thought this week we were a lot more aligned in how to play when we have the scoreboard pressure. It was a lot better than last week.”
The Rugby Championship is next for the world champions with two successive home Tests against New Zealand in August.
The All Blacks will arrive on the back of a historic series loss to Ireland in New Zealand which has put head coach Ian Foster under pressure, but Nienaber is cautious of over-confidence going into those clashes.
He added: “There’s a lot to build still. It’s not a polished performance. The set-piece functioned well, but there were still a few hiccups there.
“We are still getting used to the break-foot at the scrums. It’s something that the northern hemisphere also struggled with during the Six Nations. We will get better at it. We will have to build a lot still in terms of where we are.
“[But] the results are brilliant for spectators, there is lots of competition within the top 10 nations.”
A concern for the Bok management will be the fitness of star wing Cheslin Kolbe, who was replaced in the 20th minute against Wales with a facial injury.
His substitution prompted a reshuffle in the backline, with Willemse shifting to centre and Lukhanyo Am to right wing as Willie le Roux came off the bench.
“I am not 100% sure [about Kolbe’s injury], but that was the call when we were on the field. Obviously, it’s not ideal, especially when you go with a six-two split. It always comes with a risk,” Nienaber said.
“It’s not ideal when you lose a back, especially a quality back like Cheslin so early on. We would have loved to put Faf [de Klerk] on earlier, but we had to keep him back.
“I thought Damian stuck in well. With losing Cheslin, we had to move him to 12 and almost reshuffle the whole backline. You then sit with Faf, who is a quality player that can really bring intensity into a game, you want to expose him, but Damian had a knock.
“We also weren’t sure about Handre and his cramps. Ever since he told Montpellier he will be moving to Leicester, they basically didn’t play him at all. They just threw him out; that’s up to them and I am not criticising but that means he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities on the field. It became a catch-22.
“Will Damian last and will Handre get cramps again? I thought both of them fought through the game. They told us they were good to go, so that gave us the chance to get Faf into the mix.”
Nienaber also awaits an update on the availability of scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and No 8 Duane Vermeulen before finalising the Boks’ plans for the Rugby Championship.
“We will reassess all the injuries in the next couple of days. As a selection group, we will sit within the next week and have a discussion about our plan going forward into the Rugby Championship,” he said.
“There are a couple of guys – Cobus has to pass a medical from Montpellier, Duane also needs to pass a medical. There’s a lot of guys busy with rehab so we need to sit and reassess. The biggest thing for us was to focus on Wales and this specific game.”
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