Boks must seek full house

Bryan Habana (Gallo Images)
Bryan Habana (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - South Africa’s traditional liking for playing in Highveld conditions must be accompanied by a spirited quest for a bonus-point victory over Argentina at FNB Stadium on Saturday (kick-off at 17:00).

For the second year on the trot in the now four-nation Rugby Championship, the Boks open their tournament account at home to the Pumas, and can immediately get a stronger early foothold on the table than last year if they manage to both win and register at least four tries in the process.

Of course the first objective will be simply to bank the victory, and it is worth bearing in mind that not even clear world rugby leaders the All Blacks could get the full house of five points at home against the South Americans when they beat them 21-5 in Wellington last season (only two tries to one).

But it should also be somewhere in the back of collective Bok minds that failure to really put the Argentineans to bed at Newlands last year may well have cost them the respectability of runners-up spot on the 2012 table.

In the first year of the remodelled competition, New Zealand were runaway champions, with six wins out of six and a total points haul of 26.

But there was a stern battle for second, with the Boks agonisingly pushed into third by Australia, even though they secured 12 points each and South Africa were superior in the 'for and against' column.

The determining factor, according to tourney rules, in the Boks being forced into the bottom half of the final log (ahead of only wooden-spoonists the Pumas) was the Wallabies earning three wins to their two – Jean de Villiers’s men were held to one draw, the away clash with Argentina in Mendoza.

Still, that occasion will be remembered primarily for how fortunate the Boks were to even snatch the 16-16 outcome, thanks to Frans Steyn’s intercept try in the last quarter: the All Blacks and Wallabies did manage to knock over the Pumas each time, and the New Zealanders ironically won the away clash in La Plata by a vast 54-15 margin with an easily-earned bonus point that time.

Maybe the real reason, ultimately, the Boks were elbowed out of second on the table was because in the opener against the Argentineans at Newlands they dotted their third try in the 56th minute through Bryan Habana, but could not add the cherry for the top of the cake in the remaining 24 minutes, despite the clear-cut enough 27-6 final score.

Many Bok fans will consider a very minimum requirement in this year’s Championship the country running the All Blacks a lot closer ... and certainly getting the better of Australia this time.

As things stand, South Africa lie second on the IRB rankings with 87.03 rating points (NZ boast 90.08), but breathing very uncomfortably down their necks are the Aussies on 86.87, so on those terms they are under pressure not to subside to third again in the southern hemisphere competition as it would almost certainly see the Wallabies leapfrog them in the world pecking order.

The Boks often look their most comfortable and urgent when they play home Tests in Highveld conditions, given their relatively straightforward adaptability to the 'lungs' issue, enjoyment of the hard, fast pitches and special knowledge of the range and height that can be earned in both the tactical and place-kicking department.

The trend continued in the June Test window: it is perhaps no coincidence that after imperfect wins against Italy (Durban) and especially Scotland in the maiden Test match for the Lowveld metropolis of Nelspruit, South African played their sharpest rugby in the 56-23 dismantling of Samoa at Loftus, running in eight tries in the process.

Just another reason to suspect South Africa are probably capable of running up a big score on Saturday – with due respect to their admirable competitiveness at times, Argentina still lie 10th on the global ladder – is that the Pumas have a poor track record themselves on high ground in this country.

The Springboks, who have won 14 and drawn one of all 15 meetings between the countries since 1993, have never scored anything fewer than 46 points in three Highveld-staged clashes with these opponents.

In one of them, the 2008 meeting at Ellis Park, the Boks ran up their biggest yet margin of victory against the Pumas in a 63-9 humiliation for the tourists.

The Victor Matfield-led Boks ran in nine converted tries, seven of them in a one-sided second half when both Argentinean legs and spirits seemed to desert them glaringly.

There is every chance Saturday’s encounter will be much more closely-fought, as the Pumas have only gained in street-wisdom since then and seldom play rollover any more.

But at least four tries for the Boks? I fancy it is a very realistic objective if conditions are good ...

All Highveld results between SA and Argentina:
1994: South Africa 46 Argentina 26, Johannesburg
2002: South Africa 49 Argentina 29, Springs
2008: South Africa 63 Argentina 9, Johannesburg

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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