Boks buzzing but big calls await

RYAN VREDE writes there is cause for optimism around the Springboks but there are also areas of concern that could be terminal to their Rugby Championship cause if not decisively addressed.

I wrote in my match analysis that, outside of the Springboks’ failure to bag the bonus point, there wasn’t much unexpected about the result at Newlands. Two days hasn’t changed my perspective. On home soil the Springboks’ should always start at least 15-point favourites against Argentina.

The Pumas will improve this weekend. They will be buoyed by their home support and will have had a closer examination of the Springboks’ game plan (the elements of it that are tailored for them). That said, those advances won’t account for dramatically narrowed margin of defeat or indeed facilitate a shock victory. The Springboks, remember, will improve as well.

Their defence was brutal, accurate and organised – the best feature of their game. They seem to be grasping the details of the structure Heyneke Meyer and his defence coach John McFarland want them to. It is the bedrock upon which their title challenge must be based.

There was also enough in the individual performances of Morne Steyn and Andries Bekker as well as in their attacking play to stir optimism, although the measure of Meyer’s men in this regard will come against Australia and New Zealand. Meyer wasn’t pleased with the patchiness of their attacking showing and will demand a more sustained effort in Mendoza. He does, however, accept that this group is still in it’s formative phase and hopes that the flaws they showed – a lack of composure and poor ball protection at the breakdown in the red zone chief among those – will rectify themselves in the coming weeks. He will give them every chance to do so through continuity in selection.

That said, his reservations around scrumhalf Francois Hougaard and No 8 Keegan Daniel will linger.

Hougaard’s tactical kicking is a point of grave concern for Meyer. He was better in this facet of play in Cape Town than he was at any stage against England. The perspective here is that Argentina were never able to exert the pressure England did. Meyer faces a tough choice between retaining Hougaard ahead of Ruan Pienaar, whose tactical kicking he rates highly, or running the risk that the Wallabies and All Blacks wrench open the scab from the wound England inflicted on him. Alternatively he could make the change now and allow Pienaar to settle into the role. The latter course of action comes with a challenge. There are concerns about Pienaar’s temperament in high pressure situations, although, on the evidence of his performances for Ulster in these scenarios, he has appeared to have exorcised those demons.

I wrote a couple of months ago that Hougaard is probably a better Test wing than he is a scrumhalf. That view wasn’t shaped by incidents like on Saturday when he shifted to the position in the final quarter and excelled. The game was open and allowed him the time and space to make the breaks he did. Likewise Pienaar was able to conduct the flow and tempo of the contest in a manner Hougaard was never in the face of energetic and organised defence. Rather, my opinion has been formed by watching Hougaard start and finish as a winger in Super Rugby and the six Tests he has played in the position. I am increasingly convinced that Meyer will reach the point where he sees Hougaard as a wing who can play scrumhalf and not the converse.

Then there’s the issue of Keegan Daniel’s suitability for Test rugby. It would be grossly unfair to make an absolute judgement on his aptitude as a starting No 8 after one match in the position. But he did little to ease doubts that his diminutive stature isn’t going to be a problem going forward. Meyer deployed Marcell Coetzee at the back of the scrum on their feed, the youngster clearly seen as a superior carrier in that situation. It was the right call, but also spoke volumes about Meyer’s faith in Daniel. The Sharks man is a fine player but I suspect he will forge an international career as an impact man, where his dynamism and ball skills can shape the closing stages of Tests.

How Meyer and his coach team resolve these issues will be decisive to the success of their campaign. The performance against Argentina suggested they are on the right track in most areas, but they have some big personnel-related decisions to make in the coming weeks.

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