South Africa rode the boot of Handre Pollard to another low-risk Rugby Championship victory against Argentina that confirmed the Springboks aren’t getting bored of winning, writes ZELIM NEL.
Unsurprisingly, the rampant world champions have come in for criticism from outside the Republic for a style of play that is too efficient amid claims that the Boks have somehow damaged the game by playing to win instead of to entertain.
Pollard didn’t mince his words when questioned on the matter during the build up to Saturday’s Test.
“For us, it is not about entertaining, it is about winning. Test match rugby is about winning,” he said.
“We want to win matches and that is working for us at the moment.”
Indeed, South Africa’s 28th win in 32 Tests against Los Pumas was a tutorial in playing to win.
The pundits agonised over the lack of tries scored by the hosts during a first half in which Argentina conceded 13 penalties to the Boks’ seven. However, the tactical decision-making during that period was an exercise that showcased South Africa’s humility and perspective, despite their current status as the world’s top-ranked team.
Pollard didn’t hesitate to set the ball on the tee whenever the sticks were in range as South Africa stuck to the script and built a 15-3 half-time lead. The veteran flyhalf drilled five of five penalties in the first half, converting both tries after the break for a 19-point haul and a perfect strike rate, a dramatic improvement to his goal-kicking record during the series against the British & Irish Lions.
Since the start of 2019, the Boks have lost two of 18 Tests while conceding 14 tries and scoring 64. A team with shorter-term goals would have struggled to resist the temptation to cut loose against an Argentina side that was gunned down by the second stringers in Round 1.
But, despite denials from captain Siya Kolisi, these Boks are clearly determined to surpass the exploits of their 2009 contemporaries, and the laser focus required to achieve that objective is complemented by red-hot position battles fired by the willingness of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to test the depth in live combat.
In the absence of Pieter-Steph du Toit and RG Snyman, Lood de Jager has come back from multiple injury setbacks to regain fine form on the occasion of his 50th Test, which he celebrated by running a near-perfect lineout and winning man-of-the-match honours.
Franco Mostert’s work at blindside flanker has made Du Toit less indispensable and Cobus Reinach has also taken rapid strides with the opportunity presented by the absence of injured halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Herschel Jantjies.
While this all bodes well given the proximity of crunch matches against the All Blacks, including the 100th Test against their old rivals, South Africa is not playing flawless rugby. As much as the defence has continued to thrive, the attack has struggled in 2021.
During the 2019 Rugby World Cup playoffs, the Boks attained 50% gainline control in the final and almost 70% access to the advantage line in the semi-final.
That number dropped below 30% during periods of the Lions series and was at 33% in the first half against Argentina on Saturday.
South Africa’s tally of 64 tries in the last 18 Tests includes high-scoring wins against minnows at the Japan showpiece, but the Boks have only scored one try in each of their last two showdowns with the All Blacks.
And their failure to control the Pumas and secure the try-scoring bonus point in the fourth quarter will be high on the agenda of this week’s review.
Momentum is key to fuelling the attack and, though the Bok set-piece is excellent, there hasn’t been enough consistent punch from, among others, rookie No 8 Jasper Wiese who is deputising for the crocked Duane Vermeulen.
While the veteran thumper is due back soon it was impressive to see Cheslin Kolbe, of all players, stepping up to help jumpstart the attack – the dynamo accelerated through a gap in the vacuum and opted to wide-stride into Gonzalo Bertranou, putting the Pumas scrumhalf on his butt and then later the winger climbed into two breakdowns to force a turnover.
This selflessness, combined with Pollard’s boot and an overarching winning mindset, will make South Africa hard to beat for as long as they continue to keep the main thing the main thing.