Bismarck du Plessis admits that the game plan depends on a strong lineout and that the Boks cannot expect to win the tournament unless they lift their flagging standards.
The Boks won nine of their 11 lineouts on Sunday, a stat that suggests there is no cause for concern. But a closer look at the quality of ball provided by the lineout unit reveals that the Boks are no longer the well-oiled machine that dominated all comers at the 2007 World Cup.
Wales won 15 of their 17 lineouts, a stat that confirms the Boks are battling to impose themselves from a contesting point of view. It was a game where they needed to be at their defensive best given the Welsh had so much possession (61%), and a game where they needed to challenge and effect more turnovers from the opposition throw.
That they still managed to win their game was a testament to their scrambling defence, as well as the poor finishing by the Welsh.
Du Plessis said the lineout has been discussed in depth following the Boks’ narrow 17-16 victory. They’re unlikely to come up against a stern set-piece challenge in their remaining pool games, but they need to ensure they’re operating at maximum efficiency before a probable quarter-final against Ireland.
The Irish, of course, are renowned for their lineout play and have the added advantage of a former Bok forwards coach (Gert Smal) in their ranks. If the Boks don’t polish their skills in this department, they may not be as lucky as they were in the recent game against Wales.
‘We didn’t use the lineout ball to the best of our abilities,’ Du Plessis told keo.co.za. ‘It’s been a strength of the Boks since 2004 when some of these players first started playing, so it’s definitely an area we want improve.
‘I think the defensive lineout was great in the first half, but slacked in the second. We need to ensure we keep the pressure on the opposition.’
Victor Matfield, the brains behind the South African lineout, is out of action due to hamstring injury. He is expected to be sidelined for 10 days and won’t be considered for the Fiji clash, and could also miss the following game against Namibia.
Matfield’s No 5 jersey and lineout responsibilities will now fall to Johann Muller. The Boks will be operating with a second-string lock pairing given Bakkies Botha is already sidelined, but will still be under pressure to lift their accuracy and execution at this set piece.
Du Plessis has no doubt that Muller, an experienced and skilled lineout exponent in his own right, will be up to the challenge.
‘Johann has played almost 40 Tests, was a stalwart at the Sharks and has changed the lineout mindset of [Irish club] Ulster. I have great respect for Johann. He’s also been a Springbok captain, and he remains a big leader in the team.’
While Fiji, Namibia and Samoa are unlikely to test the Boks at the lineout, Du Plessis confirmed that the South Africans won’t be taking these fixtures lightly. They may have got through the biggest clash of their pool with a win, but the Bok hooker said there’s still plenty to prove before the knock out stage.
‘We saw what happened in 2007 when you look too far ahead. If you are not looking at the next step, you could end up taking two or three steps back. In the last World Cup, JP Pietersen tackled a Fijian player out at the touchline. That could so easily have been a try and we could have been out.
‘It’s been the motto of our team that we take it game for game. We did put a lot of emphasis on Wales and won the game. We’ve made a good start but the job is not done yet.’
By Jon Cardinelli, in Wellington