Will sensational defence do?

2011-10-01 00:00

THE Springboks’ final Pool D encounter against Samoa at the North Harbour Stadium yesterday was to serve as a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming quarter-finals.

The white-clad Boks would use the opportunity to fine-tune their game and build on the impetus gained from confidence-boosting wins over Fiji and Namibia after the great escape against the Welsh in their tournament-opener.

Forty minutes into yesterday’s Test things looked rosy for the Boks. They led 13-0 after a clinical first-half performance in which stand-in skipper Victor Matfield and his charges dominated field position and outclassed the Pacific Islanders in the set pieces.

Matfield pulled the strings in the lineout, opting to take it upon himself to safeguard possession on the Boks’ throw, while he, Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies disrupted and turned over possession on Samoa’s throw.

The scrum battle was even more lopsided as the Boks’ all-Sharks front row of Tendai Mtawarira and the brothers Du Plessis dismantled their Samoan counterparts and had them back-pedalling at the rate of knots.

Equally impressive and effective was their seemingly unstoppable driving maul, a trademark of South African rugby, as well as their exemplary discipline.

However, as the teams took to the field for the second half, the pendulum swung.

Bryan Habana, having done well to hold on to a bullet pass by Bismarck du Plessis and round off in the corner to score what would be the Boks’ only try, challenged Samoa No. 8 George Stowers for the ball from the kick-off and injured his left knee.

Moments later his replacement, Francois Hougaard, copped a knee to the head and he too was lost to the Boks.

Shortly thereafter Stowers stretched over in the tackle to get Samoa right back in it at 13-5 and suddenly the dynamic of the Test changed.

Had the Boks translated their territorial and set piece dominance into points in the first half they would effectively have sewn up the match and cantered to a comprehensive victory, which would have sent a clear message to likely quarter-final opponents Australia.

Their inability to do so would not have gone unnoticed by the wily Wallabies. The Tri-Nations champions would feel that, should they come off second best in the set pieces — as is expected — they would continue to back themselves due to the Boks’ lack of attacking synergy and killer instinct.

This crucial kink in the Boks’ armour is the most worrying because it cannot be rectified on the training pitch in areas such as set piece play, tactical kicking, goal-kicking and defence.

The last has been the shining light of the Boks’ play since the home leg of the Tri-Nations and the primary reason why they have won five successive matches for the first time since June 2010.

Their much-improved defence has leaked just two tries and a total of 24 points in the World Cup pool stages, the best defensive record in this year’s tournament.

Worryingly, though, the Boks missed no fewer than 27 tackles yesterday, a statistic that would please the fleet-footed Wallabies.

The mere two five-pointers conceded is a testament to the Boks’ sensational scramble defence, but a lot of emphasis will need to be placed on first-time tackling heading into next weekend’s showdown.

The Boks were brought down to earth by yesterday’s narrow win,.

However, the plethora of experienced campaigners in the squad will ensure the defending champions will turn this into a positive and view it as a wake-up call in the same mould as the nail-biting 17-16 win over Wales.

The form of Bismarck du Plessis, Rossouw, Burger and Frans Steyn will instil further confidence, as will the performances of Fourie du Preez and Pat Lambie against the Samoans.

The injuries to Habana and Hougaard could result in either Odwa Ndungane or Gio Aplon being drafted into the starting line-up for next weekend’s crunch clash in Wellington.

Arguably the biggest bolter when the squad was announced in August, Ndungane lacks the pace and explosiveness of the injured duo as well as that of his Sharks team-mate Lwazi Mvovo, over whom he was preferred.

It’s unlikely that he would have had the speed to score the try Habana finished so expertly yesterday, but he will bring experience and, crucially, a much-needed stability on defence to the left wing, the statistically proven weak point in the Boks’ defence.

Aplon, in turn, lacks experience, but will add an X-factor to an otherwise predictable back division.

The form of Rossouw, one of the undoubted stars of the tournament to date, and uncertainty over Bakkies Botha’s fitness will serve as the major selection poser for coach Peter de Villiers.

John Smit will be reinstated as captain, despite Bismarck du Plessis’ barnstorming performance, and Morné Steyn will be retained at flyhalf in spite of his sub-standard showing against the Samoans.

Yesterday’s Test highlighted the good and the bad of the Boks’ play — there is much to improve and not a lot of time to do it, but it’s not all doom and gloom for the Boks.

A loss next weekend would signal the end of a golden era of Boks and the relinquishing of rugby’s Holy Grail.

The Wallabies are a class outfit, but the ageing defending champions will conjure up every ounce of their being in the hopes of keeping their title defence alive.

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