Boks in fine health for 2011
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Rustenburg – The Springboks moved into “power fifth” against France at Newlands on Saturday, reminding the planet that they firmly intend becoming the first side yet to successfully defend a World Cup crown in New Zealand next year.
There has been some talk over the past year that a few veteran Boks will be creaking dangerously by then – we can bury that notion for the time being.
As much as the introduction of numerous fresh faces has been a pleasing hallmark of their first two Tests of the year, the core of South Africa’s senior statesmen hardly look as if they are losing their zest or mettle.
That much was evident in the 42-17 romp against the Six Nations champions in Cape Town, and featuring a decisive five tries to two against a sometimes bogey team in recent times.
Three of those mostly thrilling Bok dot-downs were shared by Young Turks in the form of hometown favourites Gio Aplon and Francois Louw, with the former going on to earn man-of-the-match for his twinkle-toed thrust and pace and the latter earning high praise from SuperSport’s visiting Welsh pundit and Lions legend Scott Gibbs.
“(Louw) was so destructive on the floor … he brought the Boks an extra dimension today,” the meaty former centre enthused.
But this heart-warming win – amazingly South Africa’s first against France at Newlands after two draws many moons ago and a visiting triumph in 2006 – was also marked by the dominance of a front five in which seasoned soldiers like Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw and Gurthro Steenkamp got stuck in with great aplomb.
That was primarily what caused the French, typically still hell-bent on running the ball audaciously, to have to orchestrate many of their attacking moves from behind the advantage line and then, just as often, get unceremoniously rocked back in the tackle.
France missed a few key players but they still fielded the nucleus of their squad which currently boasts northern hemisphere superiority and looked a rattled and ragged outfit for much of the contest, even if there were moments of gorgeous backline dazzle from them.
The Boks were expected to face a severe examination in the engine room, but they ruled the roost(ers) in the lineouts with Matfield at his canny best in deciphering the opposition plans and then poaching the ball demoralisingly from under their jumpers’ noses.
Rossouw was all fire and brimstone generally, as he had been in the altogether less polished victory over Wales last week, while Steenkamp had a fairytale game at loosehead prop on his 29th birthday.
The bald Bulls stalwart not only played a leading role in the Bok scrum unexpectedly getting the better of their renowned opponents, but he also ran in a try to remember as he latched onto a lovely, floated Morne Steyn pass on the blind side and there was no stopping the thundering rhino.
Pleasingly, South Africa continued to boss the set-piece even after the disprution of losing captain John Smit at halftime to a hamstring injury and then Jannie du Plessis replacing BJ Botha at No 3 before the final quarter, not long after the latter hurt his neck.
As Smit’s replacement, Chiliboy Ralepelle joyously grabbed the opportunity to silence some of his detractors - the once injury-jinxed 23-year-old shone at just about all of his required tasks for 40 minutes.
Another often unpopular selection, scrumhalf Ricky Januarie, similarly excelled with his constant sniping and darting and willingness to turn “loosie” for a turnover or two, into the bargain.
There were odd occasions when he was not at home for a desired quick pass from a ruck, it is true, but overall this was a strong performance from the Stormers’ mostly reserve No 9.
Jaque Fourie was as industrious as he has been all year so far at outside centre, marshalling the awesomely aggressive Bok defence and proving a handful with ball in hand too.
I am still not fully comfortable yet about Zane Kirchner at fullback: just when you’ve marvelled at one of his deft touches, he goes and loses focus for a fatal second as a frustrating little gremlin creeps into his play.
Mind you, maybe a solid run in the side will pay dividends for him?
For so early in the international season, Springbok discipline through the ranks was a notable feature, particularly in the first half.
France only got their first penalty out of Bryce Lawrence in the 37th minute and by then the Boks had already earned some seven of their own.
South Africa move onto two relative backwater Tests against Italy and, despite a likely temptation for continuity in some respects, surely now they must “manage” some of their older legs by keeping them in the stands for these outings in pursuit of the much, much bigger picture …