It’s been universally accepted that South Africa’s defeat to Japan was embarrassing, humiliating and unacceptable. While Japan have improved tremendously as a team and are the fittest outfit in the competition according to Eddie Jones, it was a hugely embarrassing moment for South African rugby.
1995 Springbok World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar summed it up succinctly when he said that while it’s wonderful for world rugby and the growth of the game, it really hurts from a South African perspective. What is slowly happening is that we are broadening the base of world rugby, which is very positive. However, Scotland’s clinical win over Japan puts everything into perspective.
There is sufficient talent within the South African team to get past the group stages, but there are a number of issues of concern for the Springboks. Heyneke Meyer has backed a host of players who are coming to the end of their careers. While Heyneke has a considerable amount of confidence in the likes of Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, and has formed a strong relationship with his captain Jean de Villiers, the fact is that they are approaching the twilight of their respective careers.
Mafield and Fourie du Preez are players of their generation, but we cannot escape the fact they are approaching the end of their international careers. Meanwhile, 34-year-old De Villiers is a very good player, but the reality is he has hardly played in the last 12 months. The next few World Cup fixtures will shed light on whether South Africa’s senior statesman can still perform at the highest level.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, South Africa’s match against Samoa is a big test for 21-year-old Handre Pollard. The former Paarl Gimnasium pupil is a player with tremendous talent, but is still relatively new to international rugby. Heyneke is concerned about Samoa attacking the ten channel and therefore believes Pollard will close down that channel because he’s big and physical.
While the 2014 Junior World Player of the Year will be able to defend well because he stands tall at 1.89m and weighs 97kg, Morne Steyn, who is playing his club rugby in the northern hemisphere, may have been better suited to play at pivot for this match. The reason being, the Springboks will almost certainly return to their traditional strengths when they locks horns with Samoa at Villa Park.
South Africa are used to playing structured football, so as soon as the contest becomes unstructured and loose, that simply isn’t our game. Samoa, coached by Stephen Betham, are in possession of dangerous outside backs and their running and finishing from broken play is a considerable strength.
The Springboks must use their brains and play a tactically astute game against the Pacific Islanders. South Africa boasts some exceptional athletes in terms of physique, but they have to use their heads and play according to their own strengths. Meyer’s men have to kick intelligently to ensure they play the game in the right parts of the field, and in order to keep Samoa pinned in their own territory.
Additionally, the more scrums and lineouts there are during the match on Saturday in Birmingham, the better because historically the Samoan set-piece has proved an area of weakness, particularly when they’ve come up against tier-one countries. In short, South Africa need to dominate the Samoans up front, along with the territorial stakes. If they do so, I have no doubt that the Springboks will win the contest and, in the process, get their 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign back on track.
Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett during the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Having served as the Southern Kings’ director of rugby, he is now head coach of Pro12 club side Edinburgh.
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