Cape Town – It has been refreshing to watch the Springboks slowly but surely evolve their attacking game in 2022.
The major change, though, really came when Damian Willemse was at flyhalf – whether he moved there in the second half earlier in the season, or started in the No 10 more recently.
It just seems as the shackles are removed when Willemse is calling the shots at pivot. Suddenly Damian de Allende is running superb angles, the wings actually get the ball in open play, and the over-reliance on Lukhanyo Am is not as conspicuous in his injury-enforced absence.
But tomorrow’s Rugby Championship decider calls for a different approach – and that’s not only because Willemse won’t be on the field.
We all know what we will get from Frans Steyn as the general: booming boot, strong defender, someone who can throw long passes and charge at the gain-line. But he is not a playmaker in the Willemse – or dare we say, Elton Jantjies – mould, and won’t have the necessary finesse to unlock Argentina’s defence.
That is part of the reason why blunt force would be a smarter style at Kings Park.
The Boks have had their moments upfront in scoring from mauls or using it as a platform to set up tries, but it hasn’t been operating as smoothly as in previous years.
That is partly down to a lineout that has wasted a few attacking opportunities as well. In fact, the South Africans are only third on the lineouts won list in the tournament, with 82.1% – behind the All Blacks (89.2), Argentina (88.4) and Australia on 80.
They need to get that facet right in Durban tomorrow, as the pressure will be on in the race for the title – although coach Jacques Nienaber doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the statistics.
“I think we lost two lineouts on the weekend. I think we had 14 and lost two, and they were similar. I just think teams are contesting. I would lie if I give you the lineout stats – I’m not sure what it currently is in terms of our success rate,” Nienaber said this week.
“We look at it completely differently. Winning the lineout is one thing, but our stat is probably delivery – getting to your plan. So, we probably look at it more from that point of view.
“Argentina probably have one of the best lineouts in the competition, if you look at success rate. They have a good maul and have scored a couple of maul tries; a good set-piece.”
However, Nienaber did mention the Bok issues in the scrums, which haven’t been as dominant as the South Africans would’ve liked. “I thought they (Argentina) had our number in terms of a scrum point of view (in Buenos Aires). So, it’s something that we will have to work hard on,” he said.
If we look at the numbers, the Pumas actually have the best scrum in the competition with an 82% success rate, followed by SA (81), Australia (78) and New Zealand (75).
It’s going to be another intense battle between the respective front rows, where the 33-year-old grizzled veteran loosehead prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro (73 caps) will again look to get under the skin of Bok tighthead Frans Malherbe.
Argentina coach Michael Cheika bolstered his backline when he announced his team yesterday, bringing in Matias Moroni at outside centre and Juan Imhoff at left wing. Imhoff will have fond memories of Kings Park, having scored a hat-trick in their famous 37-25 victory in 2015.
Nienaber noted that the Boks had made mistakes that allowed Argentina to get back to 22-20 last week “because they put us under pressure”, and praised his team for staying calm to close out a 36-20 bonus-point triumph.
He added that the team talk in the change-room at halftime was that Argentina “are a team that never goes away”, and the South Americans certainly proved that.
Their dangerous backs love it when the game is loose and they can give it a full go, which the Boks enabled them to go by relaxing just a bit when they were 22-6 up.
That cannot happen in Durban if they want to have any chance of winning a full Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009 (2019 was a single-round event).
So, all these circumstances indicate that the big boys upfront must keep things tight and grind them down, instead of throwing the ball around unnecessarily.