Cape Town - Let’s be frank, this showing hardly left the Springboks looking like potential Rugby World Cup winners in 2019.
But the fact remains that, after a tough, often error-strewn scrap at “Fortress Port Elizabeth” on Saturday, a young, eager and learning team under Rassie Erasmus’s tutelage can now claim to have knocked over fierce southern rivals New Zealand and Australia in successive Test matches … and that’s the kind of thing that at least begins to suggest dark horses for the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.
Without ever hitting giddying heights, the Boks were nevertheless clear-cut enough 23-12 victors over a desperate, far from unmotivated Wallabies outfit in the Rugby Championship encounter, almost certainly ensuring a top-two finish for South Africa now in this year’s competition.
They spent more time than many observers would like on the back foot - having less than 40 percent of both possession and territory – and played with unnecessary fire by kicking the ball repeatedly back into the hands of an Aussie team renowned for aerial prowess.
Yet you also sensed a growing conviction from the home side, a collective heart and unity that will stand them in good stead over the next few months and potentially beyond.
The Boks had to make double the number of tackles the Australians did, but they also forced many, crucial mistakes out of the visitors through their resolute and no-frills defensive appetite.
Several individuals rose well above the average for the Boks, too, including Pieter-Steph du Toit, Handre Pollard, captain Siya Kolisi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Eben Etzebeth.
Here’s how I rated the Boks in Port Elizabeth:
Willie le Roux: 5.5
Things didn’t quite seem to come off for the crafty character, who was a picture of “what might have been” angst and irritation at times. But he floated into the line dangerously from time to time, and his organisational experience was handy when Boks were under cosh.
Cheslin Kolbe: 6
Some traumatic moments on his first start, but the fact that he was all heart and willingness, throughout, lifts his rating here. The slightly-built pocket rocket got through some half-gaps and generally looked for work, including tidying up a ropey Bok lineout and making some tackles that looked like they’d come from someone weighing 25kg more.
Jesse Kriel: 5.5
Performance still not quite enough to suggest Bok No 13 shirt is finally glued to an individual. Passed straight into touch once, but did some alert covering work and his grubber to a flying Dyantyi once (it instead went just into touch) came within whisker of seeing him streak clear for touchdown.
Andre Esterhuizen: 6
Still far from a finished article at Test level, but I thought he showed good energy and stamina in the big defensive effort. Some trademark thumping hits, even if one or two tested the boundaries of lateness. One or two fumbles.
Aphiwe Dyantyi: 7
Let’s get the negative out of the way first: continues his penchant for drifting infield to costly extent at times on defence. Otherwise, a total livewire … including as quickly as 25th second on the clock with his dream intercept try. As gutsy and passionate as you could wish for; made some awesome track-back tackles and safely pouched a tricky high ball. Yellow-carded, but really just the victim of repeat Bok penalty concessions at the time.
Handre Pollard: 8
Regaining confidence to an eye-catching extent: second strong Test match on the trot for the pivot, and probably his best game of 2018. Assertive, robust, and very willing to take the ball flat - posed many questions of the Wallaby in-field defence. Brilliant break and inside offload to tee up try for his halfback partner, and kicked metronomically off the tee. One unfortunate over-cook with a touch-finder penalty.
Faf de Klerk: 5.5
Service was usually accurate and swift, often helping Pollard’s cause. But the tenacious No 9 still tends to take on far too much himself (is this as instructed?), resulting in over-eagerness and dubious option-taking … and his “contestable” kicks too often went into Aussie hands, leading to renewed pressure on stretched Bok defence. Still, took his try beautifully.
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: 6
Credible maiden start for Boks, even if not so much for his renowned athletic abilities in open play. He was committed to close-quarters work much of the time, showing good leg-drive from always safe kick-off receipts and making a double-figure tally of tackles before haul-off in 45th minute.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 8
Any fears that he might be knackered after his astonishing exertions in the shock NZ win were quickly put to rest: he clattered into tackle-making and broader collisions almost immediately … and never really let up. Topped Bok tackle count once again, this time with 17 according to one stats measure. One handling lapse when Boks were in a promising position to score a try.
Siya Kolisi: 7.5
The skipper has played an awful lot of rugby this season but he found admirable reserves of energy from somewhere in this Test, at a favoured venue for him. Everything he did seemed to ooze muscular intent, including powerful tackles and one thunderous counter-ruck that earned a key penalty just before break. At least two memorable, protracted rampages, into bargain.
Franco Mostert: 6
Unglamorous, but once again got through a “full eighty” (his speciality) with his tigerish grafting at close quarters. Combined with Du Toit for one massive double-tackle on Dane Haylett-Petty. Might have been nice to see a few more assertive carries from him?
Eben Etzebeth: 7
Consistently prominent in all areas of responsibility; the best of the four starting locks on view. Drove and tackled with intent, and apart from winning a plethora of own lineouts earned a couple of steals - and more near-steals - from the Aussie throw.
Frans Malherbe: 6
Stable factor in the scrums, though this was an area Boks battled to actually dominate which was a trifle disappointing. But the tighthead was a decent, committed “stopper” on defence.
Malcolm Marx: 6
Workmanlike and robust, and always willing to loom up for carries in wide areas (although he was vigilantly policed). But less effective in pilfering terms than usual, and Boks botched one attacking lineout when his throw-in went astray.
Tendai Mtawarira: 5.5
Not too bad … but “not bad” is increasingly not quite good enough for rights to the hotly-contested No 1 jersey, either. Couldn’t really assert himself at the set-piece, though there were a few reasonable carries, including two in quick succession.
Steven Kitshoff: 6.5
The flame-haired powerhouse was first substitute out of the blocks, in the 43rd minute, and as has become customary made his presence felt very swiftly. Produced one particularly strong scrummaging effort, and also engineered a precious ruck turnover at a time when the Boks were desperately in need of some time on the ball.
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