Victor Matfield and Willem Alberts will make a marked difference to the Springboks’ forward play in Australia and New Zealand, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks battled in the wet at Loftus Versfeld. They were shoved backwards at the scrums and hammered at the breakdown in Salta. There is much to rectify in the buildup to their next clash against Australia, although it will help a great deal to have two key players, namely Matfield, and Alberts, fit and available.
Both Matfield and Alberts missed the two Tests against Argentina. The good news for South Africa is that Matfield, the 113-Test veteran who is widely described as the best lock to have played the game, has been cleared to tour. The Boks should receive a further boost this week when Alberts gets the green light after coming through a barrage of fitness tests.
Alberts said on Tuesday that his hamstring has responded to treatment, and he expects to be back for the clash in Perth on 6 September. The Boks could certainly use a player of his skill set.
Alberts was the unsung hero of the emphatic 38-12 win against Australia in Brisbane last year. It was because of men like Alberts that the Boks received such terrific go-forward, and found themselves in a position to score four tries.
The 120kg blindside flanker was given his due following the Boks’ three-Test tour of Europe. Coach Heyneke Meyer said Alberts was, along with Willie le Roux, the strongest performer across that series.
The Boks have missed Alberts in the past two games. They have not only lacked a strong option at the back of the lineout, but that rare brand of bully who dominates the collisions.
It’s not that Marcell Coetzee was poor in Pretoria, or that Juan Smith was terrible in Salta. Coetzee has played the bulk of his rugby at openside, and can’t be expected to provide the same impetus as a man of Alberts’s size. Smith didn’t perform to his usual standards in Salta, but then neither did any of the other Bok forwards.
It will take some time for Smith to recapture his Test form of old, just as it took some time to find his feet in the European leagues. We all know how that season climaxed: with Smith scoring a breathtaking try for Toulon against Saracens in the final.
Smith will not tour Australasia with the Boks, but he will come back into reckoning if there's an injury. Meanwhile, the Boks are fortunate to have their first-choice No 7 back, a player who caused the Wallabies so many problems in 2013.
The return of Matfield is another piece of bad news for both Australia and New Zealand. The Bok lineout has wobbled in recent weeks, but that isn’t surprising considering that a 21-year-old rookie in Lood de Jager has been making the calls. Matfield’s inclusion will not only lend the Boks more experience, but a world-beating lineout manager. As witnessed over the past six months, Matfield still has the ability to make some momentum-shifting steals.
The scrums have been a big talking point. The Boks don’t have a great deal of time to set things right, but the return of two experienced players in Alberts and Matfield should help their synergy at this set piece.
The Boks battled against Argentina, but we should expect a big improvement in their forward play in the next two Tests.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images