Boks will spread net even wider

Bryan Habana (Gallo)
Bryan Habana (Gallo)
Johannesburg - The Springboks got exactly what they were looking for from their first outing of the season, with the backs enthusing coach Heyneke Meyer with the pace they had to burn, but don’t expect the same combination to take the field in Saturday’s second Castle Incoming Tours Series clash with Scotland in Nelspruit.

According to the supersport.com website, the Boks won 44-10 against Italy at Growthpoint Kings Park to get their season off to the comfortable start that will build confidence and ease some of the pressure that appeared so debilitating for much of last season. It will be hoped that the momentum built up will continue to release the shackles in the coming weeks as the South Africans continue to work on improving their attacking game.

But while the team earned deserved praise from coach Heyneke Meyer afterwards, he did pledge at the start to use the first two games as a means to develop depth so that the confidence picked up in Durban can be extended to the wider group. For a start, you can put your money on Ruan Pienaar and Pat Lambie starting as the halfback combination against Scotland.

Meyer said last week that Pienaar was just being rested because he had worked so hard for Ulster during the northern hemisphere season. He did play a bit part in the Durban win after coming on as a replacement for the last quarter hour of the game, and remains the Bok first choice scrumhalf.

And that will be even more the case now that Jano Vermaak has been ruled out of the rest of the series with the serious hamstring injury sustained on the hour mark in Durban. Vermaak has been replaced in the squad by Cheetahs No 9 Piet van Zyl, but Francois Hougaard is likely to be Pienaar’s back-up in Nelspruit.

Morne Steyn was excellent against Italy with the way he managed the game. He played territory when he needed to, and it was his control of the territory battle that forced Italy to make some of the poor kicks from which the Boks punished them in the first half. But it is understood that Meyer did promise Lambie a start in the second test and he is not exaggerating when he says he has two flyhalves he trusts and feels he can depend upon.

“I want to try a few guys so there will be a few changes for next week but I will try and keep the core of the team together,” said Meyer.

It needs to be emphasized that the Boks aren’t thinking this season on the hoof. While last year was very much about survival as they started a series against England just a few days after coming together and the assistant coaches were working for the Bulls in Super Rugby before then, this season every bit of minute detail has been taken into consideration in planning for the season.

So the good win over Italy is unlikely to have too much impact on what Meyer had planned for his selections for this week, and the following week in Pretoria will give us a better idea of what his combinations are likely to look like for the first game of the Castle Rugby Championship.

What other changes might come for the Mbombela Stadium fixture are open to conjecture. Trevor Nyakane and Arno Botha were blooded in Durban, with the latter coming through with flying colours. A lot of the media focus after the win was on the backline players such as Bryan Habana and Willie le Roux, but Botha played a big part in helping the Boks forge across the gainline and establish the platform that allowed the backs to excel.

Nyakane was part of a pack that struggled in the scrums in the second half, an aspect of the game that Meyer agreed was a blemish on the performance. Coenie Oosthuizen continues to be a work in progress as a tighthead.

“We know that we have a lot of work to do on our scrumming but we were good in the first half (when the Boks fielded a full-strength frontrow) and even in the second half we still had some good scrums on our ball,” said Meyer.

“I was pleased that Trevor, Chiliboy (Ralepelle) and Coenie (Oosthuizen) got a chance to play together as a unit and got some international experience against a very good international quality front-row.”

The Italians significantly improved their scrumming once Martin Castrogiovanni, who had been benched from the start because of a minor niggle, came onto the field. The importance of that aspect of the game was underlined in the middle stages of the game when the Italians came back strongly into the match with their scrum very much in the forefront of that recovery.

The Italians started poorly and looked at times as if they just hadn’t pitched, something confirmed by their captain Sergio Parisse afterwards.

“We showed what we could do later on when we put the Springboks under pressure, but in the first half we put pressure on ourselves by kicking poorly and that enabled the South Africans to attack us,” said Parisse.

Indeed, the Boks did attack, and while everyone is raving about a supposed new shift to the Bok game, a proper perspective needs to be put on it – while the back three were clearly given more freedom to play from their own half if they saw the opportunity, the central tenets of the Meyer game-plan were still in evidence. The Italians were squeezed out of the game by being forced to play most of the first quarter in their own half, which was when the Boks effectively won it by racking up a 20-0 lead.

Meyer has always said that his strategy is not unattractive to the eye when perfected, which last year happened only twice – in the first half of the second Test against England in Johannesburg and against Australia in Pretoria during the Castle Rugby Championships.

The opening game of the Incoming Tour Series, between Samoa and Scotland, confirmed that the Boks should not be pushed in this phase of the new season. Scotland dominated possession but suffered a first ever defeat to Samoa because of poor defence against the strong running Samoan backs. The Boks will cope better with the physicality of the islanders if, as looks likely, the two teams end up playing each other in the final at Loftus.

Scotland shouldn’t pose much of a threat in Nelspruit and whatever new or different players come into the side for that fixture should experience the same confidence boost that the men who did duty against Italy did.

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