Nelspruit - There are 80 minutes left for the Springboks to fine-tune ahead of the Castle Rugby Championship and coach Heyneke Meyer has much to think about as he considers his options.
According to SuperSport's website, Meyer surprised last week by retaining the core of the team that beat Italy for the second Castle Incoming Tour Series clash against Scotland in Nelspruit. It was against his stated intention of giving as many players as possible a chance to play for the Boks in the first two matches, but in a weird way it worked for him at Mbombela Stadium as the 30-17 win showed him that the shining lights of Kings Park seven days earlier may not have been all they were cracked up to be.
The Boks might have been fortunate to be playing the game at a venue that doesn’t see them often. A performance like the one they delivered in the first half against a side that admittedly played above itself would have been greeted with derision in Durban or Cape Town, but in Nelspruit the atmosphere and support was like they would get against the All Blacks.
The first half, when the Scots fronted the Boks at the gainline and bossed them at the break-downs, was strewn with South African errors, and as a result of that faults were exposed in the play of newcomers such as JJ Engelbrecht, who missed some tackles, and fullback Willie le Roux. Those two dovetailed superbly in scoring a second half try, but overall there was a different perspective from the one gained the week before.
Meyer was talking of Le Roux having more potential to be an impact sub than a starting fullback before Durban and in Nelspruit we could see why he might think that. Patrick Lambie would have started at No 15 in both these past two games had they been against Australia or New Zealand. So unless Meyer does what he had intimated he was going to do last week by starting him at flyhalf in the series finale in Pretoria on Saturday, don’t be surprised if he or Zane Kirchner take up the last line of defence at Loftus, with Le Roux performing a bench role.
There are lots of areas though that require looking at and need fine-tuning, and Samoa’s easy win over Italy in the first game of this past weekend’s lowveld double header might also bring a different perspective to their opening win. Samoa don’t have the tight phase strength to test the Boks, or at least they shouldn’t have – we have to be careful what we anticipate now because no-one would have expected Scotland to still be in the game until the last move at Mbombela.
Indeed, had it not been for the yellow carding of Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, thus reducing the visitors to 14 men for a critical period of the second half and changing the momentum of the game, the Scots might have inflicted the ultimate embarrassment on the Boks by beating them. They’ve lost to Scotland in Edinburgh before, but losing in South Africa to a side that is so depleted would have been a severe setback.
That they got through while still struggling though may have been a blessing for the Boks, who thus probably got more out of the game than if they had won by the anticipated 30 to 40 points. At least Meyer knows now, or he should, that first choice Francois Louw is irreplaceable at No 6, and that when he is not there, a breakdown specialist like Heinrich Brussow does merit consideration.
When the Boks aren’t smashing opponents back at the breakdown they look ordinary and are too easily mastered by their opponents, and not for the first time we were reminded how heavily their game-plan relies on go forward and momentum. When the Boks were smashing into brick walls in the first half in their quest to breach the gainline, they had no price.
Although Siya Kolisi did win the man of the match award, the Boks sorely missed Arno Botha. The Bulls player had contributed strongly to the win in Durban with his brute strength, and that was missing in this game. Kolisi played well, but he’s a different kind of player and the replacement wasn’t like with like.
So with Botha probably out for some time with the leg injury that forced him off early at Mbombela, Meyer should be hoping for a speedy return from Willem Alberts, who has missed the opening two games of the series with a slight injury complaint. If he doesn’t recover, Meyer could do worse than consider a call to Sharks No 7 Jean Deysel, for it is abundantly clear that the Boks need a big ball carrying blindside flanker in the mould of a Deysel, Alberts or Botha.
Adding needle to the match in Pretoria this week will be the memory of the tempestuous second half of the 2011 Rugby World Cup pool game between the Boks and the Samoans at North Harbour Stadium near Auckland. They’ve been as good as the Boks have so far in this series, so it’s a fitting decider, though the Boks should have too much up front for them.
At least they should if they play to their potential and if they’re as good as we think they are. After the Scotland game the Bok coach accused the South African media of underestimating Scotland. This week will show us whether it may rather have been a case of us overestimating his team.
South Africa 30 Scotland 17
Samoa 39 Italy 10