Boks hoping to maintain momentum

Victor Matfield says the Boks’ performance without a few senior players against Italy is vital looking ahead to the Tri-Nations.

Italy may not be ranked inside the world’s top 10, but they’ll test the Boks in a couple of internationals in just the areas where they need to be. After the Boks’ first two wins of the season over Wales in Cardiff and Six Nations champions France, the senior players and coaching staff have been openly critical of their performances and the areas where they’re seeking improvement.

Peter de Villiers highlighted the side’s poor decision-making at times, while this week all the talk has been about the Bok set piece. New scrum doctor Os Du Randt has been with the side since last week, and he’ll earn his salary against an Italian scrum recognised as one of the best in the world.

‘There are a few little technical things we want to work on,’ said Matfield, the Bok captain. ‘We brought in a new saying last week that we want every aspect of our game to be at least 1 or 2% better, not just improving in one area by 100%. We’ve started the season well, but we want to get better every time we put on the Bok jersey.

‘It will be good to see how far we’ve come under Os at the scrums. We know what Italy will try do, I’ve played under Nick Mallett at the Barbarians last year. They’ll have a defensive game-plan, based on a lot of kicking. We weren’t good under the high ball last week, so that will be a big test.

‘They’ll also try keep the ball in the scrum to milk penalties.’

Matfield doesn’t foresee any problems with Schalk Burger’s late withdrawal due to injury. Burger didn’t train throughout the week, and De Villiers naming him in the starting team was more out of hope than anything else.

Francois Louw will replace Burger, and Matfield acknowledged how much respect Louw has gained from his team-mates over the last two weekends.

‘We’ve spent the whole week training with Francois because we expected Schalk to be out,’ said Matfield. ‘It would have been a bonus if he was passed fit, he’s class player, but Francois has been the team’s Man of the Match two weeks in a row.’

Louw will get another chance to cement his spot in the squad, while Potgieter also has that opportunity. With John Smit, BJ Botha, Danie Rossouw, Burger, Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie rested or injured, others also have a shot at proving themselves.

A defining feature of the international season so far has been the way the newcomers have stepped in and excelled, with competition for places driving the players to new levels at the same time as expanding the Bok depth.

‘A few guys will get their chance this week, and they know you only get one chance in this team,’ said Matfield. ‘There’s lots of pressure for positions, so guys may not get a second chance.’

One such player who will have an unnecessary amount of pressure on him is Butch James. De Villiers has openly criticised the level of the northern hemisphere leagues and the form Boks have returned from there in, and James will have to prove himself in an unfamiliar position of inside centre.

If James produces the same form he has done for Bath De Villiers won’t be able to ignore him, while Matfield also highlighted his influence off the pitch.

‘Butch has been great since he’s come back, really positive. Even that week in Wales where lots of things were going on around him, he still gave lots of input. He’s a senior guy in the squad, and he knows our game. He looked like a member of the coaching staff on the sidelines.’

By Grant Ball, in Witbank