Cape Town - The Springbok midfield conundrum for RWC 2015 only deepens ... and at least it is one area where the head-scratching is largely for constructive reasons in the lead-up weeks.
As it happened: Boks v All Blacks
Another splendid, dynamic showing from young centres Jesse Kriel, in particular, and Damian de Allende provided some relief from the disappointment of a second successive Castle Rugby Championship defeat as South Africa were outlasted 27-20 by wily world champions New Zealand in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Theirs was the most compelling of the various Bok positional combinations, on a second occasion on the trot when better composure and durability might well have seen the hosts over the line in a high-quality clash.
The De Allende-Kriel synergy - they gave old All Black maestros Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith plenty of bother - complicates coach Heyneke Meyer’s intention to have yeoman-serving Jean de Villiers, who he has entrusted with the job when fit ever since he began his tenure in 2012, back at his leadership post in time for the World Cup.
This could become an increasingly hot-potato issue as time runs out to the tournament ...
Here’s how I rated the Boks out of 10 on Saturday:
Willie le Roux: 6.5
Might have scored higher, but for occasional wrong option-taking and the ever-nagging fear that he may do something barmy that proves costly! Otherwise, revelled in the fast, fluid nature of the game and ghosted brilliantly infield through holes for Boks’ opening try.
Cornal Hendricks: 6
Extremely workmanlike and sometimes slippery in Bok surges during first half. Conceded turnover, alas, in lead-up to key NZ strike just before break, and less prominent after it.
Jesse Kriel: 8.5
The 21-year-old from the Bulls is one of the individual players of the Championship thus far -- even though he is yet to taste victory after two starts in it. Building further on his smart debut in Brisbane, he was simply electric at outside centre. Ran a gorgeous, powerful line for his try and always threatened on attack. Great breakdown competitor, into the bargain.
Damian de Allende: 7.5
Once again, a big presence in every respect. Superb leg-drive at times, knocking defenders backwards, and his visionary long pass sparked first SA try. Stuck tenaciously to defensive duties, too.
Bryan Habana: 6.5
After being cynically held at late ruck, the seasoned pro lost his rag a bit and seconds later conceded nail-in-coffin penalty at the death for wild, illegal entry at breakdown. Largely convincing otherwise, with very alert tackle on flying Ben Smith, and one fine restart catch after spirited chase.
Handre Pollard: 6.5
His willingness to “have a go” with ball in hand played big role in Boks’ front-foot majesty during first half. Made his tackles firmly, although still some errant moments in both kicking out of hand and at posts.
Ruan Pienaar: 6
You’d like to see more of the sublime or unusual from him at No 9. But no quibbles with his staple efficiencies in this one; has upped his pass speed and urgency. Sometimes kicked authoritatively to win good territory.
Schalk Burger: 7.5
Worked his socks off for the cause, right through. Wait, haven’t we heard that one before? Tribute to his rugby pedigree, even as he gradually learns a new trade at No 8, that he arguably outplayed prestigious direct rival Kieran Read.
Francois Louw: 6.5
Pretty decent showing considering he was revisiting blindside flank after a lengthy absence from the role. Will rue contributing to dominant Bok breakdown performance, yet losing again.
Heinrich Brussow: 6.5
First time the tough little open-sider has lost to All Blacks in five appearances against them. But that doesn’t mean his much-publicised personal comeback after four years was a poor one – far from it. Some muscular, determined pilfering and slowing down of NZ ball, though penalised once or twice.
Lood de Jager: 7
Only scores marginally less than in his rousing hour as a sub in Brisbane ... and that still means a very polished effort. Very visible, committed hour or so, including missing a reach-out try by a few agonising centimetres.
Eben Etzebeth: 6.5
Perhaps huge early fire in belly took a wee bit of a toll much later on in frenetic international? But certainly put major first-half stamp on things with clattering hits and overall physicality. Tended to be assured on own lineout ball as well.
Jannie du Plessis: 7.5
Confirmed in this fixture that eye-opening new lease on life of late. Calls for his demise have rightly quietened. Sturdy at scrum time and energetic outside set-piece, including rare “steal”. Shame about worrying knee mishap ...
Bismarck du Plessis: 7
Got in All Black faces, as you’d expect of the hooker with the brawny biceps. Crucially pressured NZ No 8 Read as Boks dispossessed him in build-up to first try, and pinched a great ball towards end of first half. Must share blame for some lost lineouts, though?
Tendai Mtawarira: 6.5
Was working like a Trojan at scrums before they irritatingly turned uncontested. Also lively in driving moves.
Warren Whiteley: 6.5
Again this was not a great day for intended Bok “impact” off the bench, which raises concerns over squad depth. But Whiteley shades all the other substitutes on my card, as he put himself about mostly constructively and also bagged a lineout catch or two.
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