RYAN VREDE watched the Springboks secure a comfortable but flawed 27-6 victory over Argentina at Newlands.
There was nothing unexpected here, besides perhaps the Springboks’ failure to bank the bonus point. Those who predicted a closer contest were deluded. The Pumas, barring Juan Martin Hernandez, were vastly inferior man for man. And while they were always going to be passionate, that characteristic counts for little against the southern hemisphere’s elite if not accompanied by a high level of tactical and technical competence.
They had both, but not in the measure required to come close to troubling the Springboks. A greater challenge awaits the Springboks in Mendoza next weekend, where the Pumas’ combativeness is sure to be elevated by the energy and confidence drawn from rabid home support. A new level of physicality will be required on defence and more grunt will be demanded on attack from their key strike runners.
Both those facets of play will be compromised slightly if Bismarck du Plessis, substituted in the third minute with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, is absent. However, in Adriaan Strauss they have an able deputy, while the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee supplement some of the potency lost.
The trio were all outstanding this evening, Etzebeth and Alberts granitic on defence in particular, while Coetzee carried the ball effectively throughout.
The collective defensive punch and synergy was most encouraging. In a press conference this week assistant coach Johann van Graan peddled the rugby truism: ‘Attack puts bums on seats but defence wins championships’. There are sterner examinations to come but their defensive platform is sound. They simply refused to give a inch at the gainline, which in turn nullified Hernandez’s threat. The pivot is a class act but he lacked the calibre of supporting cast to be a greater influence.
However, the Springboks’ defensive excellence wasn’t matched by sustained attacking precision. They did well to gain field position with their kick-chase method, but given their territorial dominance one would have reasonably expected a better return of tries.
They started well enough in this regard, scoring twice in the first 28 minutes, Zane Kirchner rounding off a move that featured powerful phase play, while Coetzee profited from an unstoppable rolling maul.
Leading 20-3 at the break, the Springboks then went through an attacking lull in which they made fundamental errors and were disjointed on attack. They briefly sparked to life to put the match to bed when Bryan Habana collected a perfectly weighted Morne Steyn cross-kick to score.
It would be remiss not to dedicate a couple of lines to Steyn in light of his recent struggles for form. Meyer predicted he would have ‘a great’ game given the rejuvenating effect of a break after Super Rugby. It would be an exaggeration to deem his showing here ‘great’, but he certainly looked more like the Test player he was in 2009, with his goal-kicking (5/5) a throwback to that memorable period. Australia and New Zealand will be better measure of the man, but this performance will have contributed to healing his fractured confidence.
The Springboks pushed hard for the bonus-point that could to be decisive in the final analysis, given that the Wallabies and Blacks are expected to put four tries by Argentina when hosting them (the latter will probably score four against them in Argentina as well). But they lacked the patience, invention and ball protection at the breakdown to achieve their goal.
Meyer won’t be pleased with their patchy attacking showing. He will demand significant improvements in the weeks ahead. He can take heart from the fact that his squad’s cohesion will grow, which in turn will amplify their threat. It is a base from which they can and will build.