The Springboks will not realise their bonus-point objective at Loftus Versfeld unless they negate Argentina's spoil merchants, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Many of the Bok players and coaches talk of the 2013 Test against Scotland in Nelspruit as a turning point. The Boks showed character to rebound from a 17-6 deficit and win 30-17, but it was a predominantly poor performance that underlined the team's inadequacy at the breakdown.
Some took aim at referee Romain Poite, who had allowed the Scots free reign at the rucks. Some vilified Scotland players such as flanker Alasdair Strokosch, who spent most of the game offside.
In the days that followed, I caught up with Bok openside Francois Louw. His assessment of South Africa's performance was more honest, and his solution pragmatic.
Louw believed that the Boks went into that game with the wrong mindset, and were beaten at the collisions as a result. If they had turned up the heat at the tackle, and won the gainline battle, this would have taken the referee and the potential spoilers out of the equation.
It's something to bear in mind as the Boks prepare for a Test against Argentina. The Pumas have a reputation for spoiling at the breakdown. It's a reputation they're fiercely proud of, which is understandable. These provocative and stifling tactics so nearly earned them a monumental win over the Boks in Mendoza last year.
The Boks will be favourites to beat the Pumas at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday, but there will be more at stake than victory. The measure of their success will be a four-try bonus point. For the Pumas, a narrow loss on the Highveld will be treated as an achievement.
The Boks will need quick ball if they are to realise their four-try objective. Players like Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen will have game-shaping roles to play at the breakdown.
The Pumas possess a dangerous fetcher in Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, not to mention Pablo Matera, the man who caused the Boks so many problems in Mendoza last season. The Bok forwards must ensure that their cleanout at the ruck is both physical and accurate, and that Lobbe and Matera don't have the opportunity to slow the game down or effect any turnovers.
Heyneke Meyer has said on more than one occasion that the Boks are an awesome side when they receive quick ball. They have shown in the past season that they can score from turnover ball, and their counter-attack and finishing has come a long way.
However, they will need to be accurate when they build from the set pieces and take the ball through the phases. They will want to play this Saturday's game at pace. Conversely, the Pumas will want to slow it down.
The Boks were rattled by Scotland in Nelspruit last year, and then again by Argentina in Mendoza. What followed both matches was a far more intense and accurate breakdown performance. They smashed Samoa 56-23 at Loftus, and hammered the Wallabies 38-12 in Brisbane. The latter performance was especially impressive, but as subsequently confirmed by breakdown consultant Richie Gray, far from perfect.
After the game at Suncorp Stadium, the forthright Scotsman told his stunned charges that on a scale of one to 10, the breakdown showing in Brisbane rated as a five. He tempered this statement by saying it was a good base from which to build, and was adamant they would get better.
After the Boks beat Scotland 28-0 in Edinburgh, Gray told me that the job was only a quarter done. He believed this team had room to grow, and that they could become world-leaders in this facet in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup.
Gray has since been instated as a permanent member on the Bok coaching staff, and so we should expect a steady improvement in the Boks' breakdown play in the coming months. The Wallabies have taken a step forward in this area, and the All Blacks remain the trendsetters. But before the Boks tackle their Australasian counterparts, they must get it right against a combative Pumas side.
Argentina won't beat the Boks on the scoreboard this weekend, but they have the potential to beat the Boks on the ground. The Boks must endeavour to win that latter battle, as it will ensure that they come away from the clash with momentum as well as five valuable log points.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images