Boks must get in front quickly

Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Cape Town – While we should guard against taking anything away from Scotland’s seriously gritty performance in running the Springboks close at Nelspruit, it is nevertheless tempting to wonder whether the host nation might have won by an altogether clear-cut more margin but for a bit of bad luck in the opening seconds.

Think back to the Boks’ long kick-off at Mbombela Stadium: it was appallingly ill-judged by one or two of the Scottish outside backs, who left collection for each other, and had a thundering Juandre Kruger been a split second quicker, the lock would have stolen the loose ball himself and dived over for one of the quickest tries possible in a Test match.

Instead the bounce of the ball just eluded him into touch, denying the Springboks a morale-boosting possible seven-point “freebie” ... who knows, it might have also knocked much wind from Scottish sails pretty quickly?

It is history now that South Africa instead went a startling 17-6 down after 43 minutes of that Test, with danger signs flashing worryingly until they pulled themselves together to a degree to close the game out in the final quarter or so.

Samoa, like the Boks the only unbeaten side in the four-team tournament, might well not be as charitable in letting the more fancied hosts back into the fixture should they find themselves nursing so meaningful a lead themselves at Loftus on Saturday (17:15 kickoff).

I have little doubt, then, that coach Heyneke Meyer will implore his troops to try to secure a rapid head of Highveld steam against the tough Pacific Islanders, dousing their physical fire and getting them into an undesired, consistent back-pedalling mode.

For all the talk of the strides made by the Samoans, considering that more and more of their ranks have productively fine-tuned their games in major European leagues, this really ought to be another case of “how much the Boks win by” rather than victory itself being a gauge of success for the home side.

Yes, South Africa were run uncomfortably close (13-5) in the last meeting, at the 2011 World Cup, but that North Harbour scrap was almost like a home game for the Samoans, desperately fighting against tournament elimination at the time, and you just sensed it was never going to be a cakewalk for the Boks.

So there must still be a reasonably good chance of the latest Bok side, perhaps stung a bit by the Scottish resilience last week, instead continuing the trend of almost always dispatching these opponents by big margins in meetings on our soil – the closest remains the 35-8 result at Ellis Park in 2007.

It was Luke Watson’s much-debated debut for the Boks, and Jake White fielded an under-strength combination that day.

Overall, in seven undefeated all-time matches against Samoa, South Africa have posted 329 points and had only 70 against them; the try ratio is also a lopsided 45-10.

Of course it would be a bonus rather than an expectation, in a current context, if the Boks were to put 60 points on the board – something they have done twice before at home against these foes, albeit some time ago in 1995 (preceding the World Cup quarter-final meeting that year) and again under Corne Krige’s captaincy in 2002, which is also the only other occasion they have previously met at Loftus.

But it would also be handy if the Boks take to the field reminding themselves that they remain very much a rugby superpower, considering their IRB ranking of second, and that is five slots better than seventh-placed Samoa: they must believe they can win with a fair bit to spare, especially given the psychological value that would have for the tougher Castle Rugby Championship next up.

Much has been written already about how South Africa must make a far more convincing, methodical statement this week at breakdown time – and there should be an almost automatic improvement with Francois Louw back on board – but a personal wish is for the Bok scrum to show considerably greater assertiveness.

It has looked alarmingly ordinary at times during the June window thus far, and incumbent props Tendai Mtawarira (in particular) and Jannie du Plessis really need to step up a gear – part of me wishes the front-row bag had been shaken for this fixture, with one or both of them relegated to the bench as a small but firm statement of dissatisfaction with their moderate general performance levels.

There ought to be better oomph coming through from the second row at scrum-time, with Flip van der Merwe now partnering Eben Etzebeth, although it is a little perplexing that the former has been asked to do No 5 duty.

That slot is usually associated with the more athletic, rangy character, a la Victor Matfield, and Etzebeth seems easily the more transferrable lock in that regard: you seldom associate Van der Merwe with “rangy” activities, even if he is clearly a horses-for-courses pick against the Samoans.

The halfback combination of Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn, who did not tick too many boxes against Scotland, will be put to an acid test as the Samoans, possibly detecting that neither man is especially noted for physical relish, are likely as a result to want to make ball-in-hand advances where possible through their channels.

A gut feel still tells me the Boks are well capable of ensuring 25 points-plus daylight in Pretoria ... provided they start with genuine urgency and a no-messing attitude.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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