Boks: A look on the bright side

Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Such was the Sunday climate of despondency among many Springbok rugby fans that you’d think the national team had actually lost their Castle Rugby Championship match against Argentina in Mendoza.

As it happened: Argentina v SA

VIDEO: Eye gouge on Francois Louw

VIDEO: Etzebeth biting incident

Quick reality check: despite the near-maniacal zeal of the rejuvenated Pumas, South Africa did get past the post, and narrowly lead the standings from New Zealand after the second round of matches.

They have nine points each, but the Boks are currently superior in for-and-against terms, primarily because of the avalanche home win over the Argentineans a week earlier.

Of course the majority of South Africans, and doubtless the Boks themselves, will be only too aware that the situation is notably skewed by Jean de Villiers’s team having quickly played both fixtures against probably the weakest of the quartet in the competition, whilst the All Blacks will be well chuffed with disposal of Australia twice and clinical retention of the parallel Bledisloe Cup.

Frankly, Richie McCaw’s side are already sitting prettiest and have sent out strong signals that they will not easily be knocked off their lofty perch, either in this event or on the IRB rankings.

Nevertheless, it is also an indisputable fact that - in a 2013 Championship showing exactly the same sequence of matches as last year - the Boks have bagged three more points against Argentina than they did in the maiden season of the four-nation competition.

It must be remembered that at Newlands last year the fourth try proved just too elusive, whilst the Mendoza date ended in a 16-16 stalemate, thus curtailing South Africa to six points out of a possible 10 against the Pumas: this time they came up just one short of a full house.

That amounts to a significantly healthier situation for them, one third of the way through an event featuring only six matches per team.

There is also now the tantalising incentive for the Boks to go all out to beat the iffy, transitional Wallabies in Brisbane in a fortnight - for if they do achieve that, it would just about certainly make the Championship a two-horse race between the World Cup champions and South Africa.

At present, Australia are bottom of the pile without a point to show; the Pumas so deservedly got the consolation of a losing bonus point against the Boks on Saturday.

A third loss on the trot for the Wallabies in a fortnight’s time and there would be no coming back for them ... even for the runners-up slot, you would think.

There is also a good case for saying - and words to this effect have already been expressed by coach Heyneke Meyer and others in the camp - that the closeness of the contest in Mendoza will have popped any bubbles of mental complacency that may have existed in some team personnel going into the return clash between the two teams after pathetically one-sided events at FNB Stadium.

It is not Meyer’s way, particularly this season, to shake bags too vigorously just because a victory has been ground out in ugly fashion rather than with liberal doses of flair.

So those with a knee-jerk demand for wholesale alterations to the starting XV against the Wallabies in Brisbane could well be disappointed.

But that also doesn’t mean Meyer and his lieutenants won’t put a great deal of thought for the next week and a bit into whether, in fact, they have the correct incumbents in certain positions.

I would argue that the pack, although outplayed for sheer urgency and collective gusto by the desperate Pumas on Saturday, remains a pretty settled combination and overwhelmingly deserving of a vote of confidence in Australia.

The one key issue in the boiler room might be whether mobile lock Juandré Kruger, who fell a long way short of his effort in Soweto in the follow-up clash, merits another crack: he simply did not pitch up enough for physical commitment in Mendoza.

Remember that Flip van der Merwe dovetailed surprisingly well with Eben Etzebeth when they teamed up recently enough against Samoa - an outfit not unlike the Pumas at times for roughhouse qualities where the proverbial sun don’t shine - and the possibility of putting out two “bruisers” in the second row cannot be ruled out.

That said, the Wallabies present different challenges, style-wise, to Argentina.

Bismarck du Plessis? He is clearly fast regaining his premier form after all those months of inactivity, and Adriaan Strauss was a fraction short of his own admirable best as starting hooker on Saturday.

But a guess at this stage is that the latter will hang onto his berth, given his consistent excellence in the green and gold for around a year, yet all the while knowing that the heavyweight presence of Du Plessis lurks on the bench: perhaps the world-class Sharks combatant will earn nearer to 40 minutes of game-time after the break in Brisbane if his brute strength and lustre is clearly required.

It is behind the scrum that the picture looks a little more volatile: none of the back three (Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana and Bjorn Basson) had a compelling game in Argentina, though in Habana’s case his position is very secure, JJ Engelbrecht still leaves some room for concern defensively at outside centre, and Ruan Pienaar is particularly in peril at scrumhalf.

No 9 is the likeliest area for a change against the Wallabies: Pienaar just looked too languid in Mendoza, clearing the ball unacceptably slowly much of the time and generally failing to put a stamp on proceedings.

Logically that should bring Jano Vermaak back into the spotlight for a second Bok start, after his debut in that regard was cruelly cut short by a 59th-minute torn hamstring against Italy back in early June.

Mind you, the more hopeful among Bok supporters may not want to completely preclude the possibility of some fresh “diplomatic engagement” between SARU and Fourie du Preez’s Japanese bosses for the veteran maestro’s cheeky release for the Antipodean leg of the Championship ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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