Iain Morrison: Springboks foiled by skill & spirit
Pool A of the World Cup always had a tasty look about it, with all the focus on England, Wales and Australia. But Fiji’s surprise win over Samoa in the final of the Pacific Cup a week ago suggests that the islanders may yet have a bearing on who tops the toughest pool, even if they may not have the squad to do so themselves.
Glasgow’s lock, Leone Nakarawa, continued where he left off in the Guinness Pro12 final by scoring a brace against Samoa and you suspect Bath may have picked the wrong ’un when signing his fellow Fijian Niko Matawalu.
Meanwhile, the Wallaby win will have given Stuart Lancaster a severe dose of the heebie jeebies. England’s coach can no longer rely upon Australia’s traditional Achilles’ heel because the Wallabies’ scrum was dominant against New Zealand even if their lineout struggled with two short stops in the third row of the scrum, David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
Without scrum domination England will have to find other ways to beat the Wallabies rather than squeezing the life out of them at the set piece and, on last weekend’s evidence, that won’t be easy.
Despite starting the match with much the poorer set of half-backs, replacements Nic White and Matt Toomua both impressed when whistled up in the second half.
The Aussies thoroughly deserved their win even if you might not want to bet your mortgage on them repeating the feat this Saturday at Auckland’s Eden Park.
Two of the Australians’ tries came from from simple missed tackles near the All Blacks try line which allowed Sekope Kepu and White to score.
Such simple errors are easily rectified and, with World Cup places on the line in Auckland, it is almost impossible imagining the All Blacks gifting such cheap scores for the second weekend running.
The weekend’s loss may have removed the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility but it may also be a welcome boot up the backside for Steve Hansen and his players as they plan to become the first team in history to win back-to-back World Cups.
Although they have plenty of players to return from injury, South Africa’s problem run deeper. They were tame throughout their shock loss to the Pumas.
You have to pinch yourself – this was a genuine, gob smacking, eye-popping upset.
Ahead of the game, one popular rugby website predicted “a bloodbath” before suggesting that the Boks were 35 points superior.
Instead, the Pumas finished the game 12 points ahead and that was with 14 men after flanker Pablo Matera was binned for a high tackle.
The Bokke were out-muscled by a terrier-like Argentina team who dominated the set scrum and who closed down the Springboks’ time and space, especially in the midfield.
Put bluntly, Argentina believed in themselves, they wanted it more and they played with a passion and spirit that the home team could not begin to match. They out-Boked the Boks.
Of course they also displayed a lot of skill. One back flick by Juan Martin Hernandez was worth the price of admission alone and in hat-trick hero Juan Imhoff they have a winger of rare speed and strength
But none of this would be good enough to match, let alone beat, the Boks if it wasn’t for the old school spirit that is the Pumas’ trademark. Argentina add up to much more than the sum of their separate parts thanks to it.
There was one telling moment in the second half. Schalk Burger is not the shy retiring type, but when he got the ball in space and ran at the Argentina line the breakaway went to ground the moment he made contact.
In contrast, the Pumas were aggressive with and without the ball, flying into the opposition, legs pumping and making valuable metres over the gain line almost every time.
Even the usually immovable object that is Bismark du Plessis was bundled back in contact on more than one occasion. Match them physically and the Boks can look a little ordinary.
Scotland find themselves in the same World Cup pool as South Africa and, in similar fashion, no one gives them a snowballs chance against the two-time winners and, despite sitting at the bottom of the Championship table, a team that remains one of the favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.
The Pumas have effectively ended Scottish hopes in both of the last two World Cups, France 2007 and New Zealand 2011 and smart teams learn lessons when they lose.
It is time Vern Cotter’s squad learned just what is possible when the combustible cocktail of spirit and skill are mixed together in one hungry squad of players.