There was plenty in the Boks’ performance in Cardiff to suggest they will affect a clean sweep of Wales, Scotland and England this November.
Call it ugly, call is unimaginative, but call it what it is. Call it a win. There have been times in 2008 when the Boks have won by greater margins such as the two June Tests against Wales, but there were fundamental concerns in those fixtures that became more apparent in a dismal Tri-Nations campaign. This was the closest of the four Bok-Welsh Tests played since last November, but there were more reasons to feel encouraged in the aftermath.
Everybody expected the Boks to revert to a more conservative approach given the UK conditions, even when Peter de Villiers told the media he would never push a conservative brand. Cardiff was an arm-wrestle, and although it wasn’t a classic in the terms of skill and free-running, it was an honest-to-goodness Test match. You only had to look at the South African forwards in the aftermath to know they’d been in a tough game. Tactically, the Boks boxed clever by playing for territory though Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar, and if this pair is given more time to develop, they could become the most well-rounded halfback combination in world rugby.
Many critics will bemoan South Africa’s failure to score on attack. The Boks scored twice against the run of play, firstly through a turnover and secondly through a Jean de Villiers intercept. But those scores must be viewed in context.
It was the Boks’ superior kicking game that had the Welsh constantly under pressure, and it was a well placed kick that led to the first try. The forwards affected the steal when the Welsh defender got isolated after taking the high ball. The Boks were then good enough to capitalise on the unprepared Welsh defence. The second try was also due to defensive pressure, not just in isolation, but in the greater context of the game. It was a careless pass by James Hook, but the substitute flyhalf was brought on to force the play and get Wales back into the contest. De Villiers read it well and produced the individual brilliance, but you can put his try down to the defensive effort of the collective.
That said, the Boks could certainly have done more on attack in Saturday’s game. Their lineout was unmatchable, the scrums were steady and the performance at the collisions was fierce. Wales had far more opportunities, but it is disappointing that the Boks didn’t use what few opportunities they had. John Smit and Victor Matfield put this down to mistakes and Welsh spoiling, but a sharper effort is required in Edinburgh, if not to beat to Scotland then to build for the big game at Twickenham. At the moment they have a platform, but Scotland presents a golden opportunity to improve.
Looking to the game at Murrayfield, Peter de Villiers may be tempted to rest a number of players. Jean de Villiers has had a lot of rugby and would be top of the list, but perhaps the decision needs to be made with the development of combinations in mind. Pienaar had a dream first Test start in the No 10 jersey, but his partnership with Du Preez and De Villiers needs time to flourish. From a tactical perspective, they are going to form the core of the side, and before that British & Irish Lions series you’d want them to have some decent experience as a unit.
It must also be a temptation to give players like Earl Rose a start, but this is unlikely to serve a greater purpose. Rose was a shock selection for the tour, and when Pienaar was picked as a specialist pivot it also raised some eyebrows. But De Villiers’s faith in Pienaar has paid off, and for now, the coach needs to build on that success by giving the Sharks halfback as much game time as possible.
The Smit experiment at tighthead was another success at the Millennium Stadium, and his combination with Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira will also strengthen over time. As the Bok skipper mentioned at the post-match press conference, it’s difficult to dominate as a tighthead, and learning the craft will come with experience. The acid test awaits in the form of Andrew Sheridan at Twickenham, but it wouldn’t hurt to produce another solid scrumming effort against the Scots this coming weekend.