Don’t begrudge the Springboks for reverting to a more traditional tactical approach, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Having strangled the life out of Argentina on Saturday with a physical, passionate performance, it’s clear that the Boks have settled on the style of play that they believe will reap rewards at the World Cup.
In the opening two Tests of the Rugby Championship, a Bok side boasting a mobile loose trio and young backline flirted with a ball-in-hand approach, and produced some sparkling periods of play, but still ultimately failed to emerge victorious.
It’s the type of approach that can be extremely effective at the right time and place, particularly when the tempo of the game is high-paced.
However, the Boks were caught out in Durban, with the Pumas – boasting numerous players who ply their club trade in the northern hemisphere – outmuscling the home side and frustrating them by slowing the ball down at the breakdown.
That revealing Test match may well prove to be a blessing in disguise as it clearly caused Meyer to take stock of the tactical requirements that will need to be met in order to be successful at the World Cup.
And in Buenos Aires, the Boks provided a performance that will have served to rubber stamp this game-plan blueprint for the World Cup.
The Boks dominated the forward exchanges, emphatically won the scrum contest, defended effectively and controlled the territorial battle with Pat Lambie’s accurate boot.
The Pumas had no answer, and the Boks had their most convincing victory in Argentina since the South Americans joined the Rugby Championship.
After the match, SuperSport conducted an interview with Heyneke Meyer, and the messages from the mightily relieved coach spoke volumes.
‘The guys really put their bodies on the line, and it shows that’s how we should play, we should play Springbok rugby that makes us proud,’ he commented. ‘We changed a few things with the game plan, we decided to play more tactically … We didn’t pitch up in the previous game, we might want to move the ball and throw it around, but in Test rugby you don’t win like that. You have to respect your opponent and be more tactical, and I thought our defence was really awesome.
‘This is how you win World Cups, you have to grind it out away from home, and I think we’d lost that art,’ he added. ‘You can play great rugby in the Rugby Championship, but this is Test match rugby away from home and what we will face in the World Cup … but if we play like this no one can beat us.’
It remains to be seen whether the Boks can deliver on that assertion, but there was little doubt that Saturday’s approach was something that came extremely naturally to them.
Key to this, though, is the presence of big ball-carriers, and physical defenders, such as Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen. While Alberts didn’t have a standout game on Saturday, his physical presence cannot be discounted, and to borrow a cricket term, he will be all the better for his time out in the middle.
Vermeulen’s recovery from injury remains integral to the Boks’ World Cup cause, as will be that of scrumhalf general Fourie du Preez, who is another player ideally suited to conducting a tactical game.
Pieter-Steph du Toit’s return from injury is also another massive boost for the Boks, and his ability to slot in at lock or as a blindside flanker back-up has surely booked him a World Cup ticket.
With regards to the Boks’ alteration in approach, the big question will now revolve around which flyhalf will be best suited to run this tactical show from pivot.
Lambie put his hand up in a big way against Argentina, and may well have just done enough to sneak ahead of Handré Pollard in the World Cup reckoning at No 10, but the competition between the two remains extremely healthy for the Boks. Morné Steyn, meanwhile, remains a reliable flyhalf fail-safe.
With regard to these selection decisions, Meyer’s job is an unenviable one, but at least his mind is understandably made up about the approach the Boks need to embrace at the World Cup.
Photo: Gabriel Rossi/Gallo Images