Boks in dark over Argentina
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Siya Kolisi and Pat Cilliers talked about their joy at being included in the Springbok squad for the Rugby Championship.
Cape Town – The advantage for the Springboks of starting their Castle Rugby Championship campaign with back-to-back matches against Argentina is that consecutive victories will be deemed likely against comfortably the lowest-ranked on the IRB ladder of the four participating nations – thus giving their assault on the title an immediate, desired head of steam.
But certain perils also lurk for the Boks, and not just because the Pumas are traditionally tough nuts to crack despite their currently eighth-placed status in the world.
A fillip for more familiar SA rivals from the Tri-Nations days, New Zealand and Australia, will be their grateful opportunities to gauge the mettle of the South American newcomers when they tackle the Boks at Newlands next Saturday and then in Mendoza a week later.
In that sense, the Boks will be guinea pigs, as their strengths and weaknesses against the tourney rookies will be observed with great interest by the other two SANZAR powerhouses ahead of their own challenges against the Pumas.
That is primarily because the Argentineans did not play as anything near a full-strength force during the earlier Test window in June, when they nevertheless beat Italy and shared a short home series with a similarly experimental France outfit 1-1.
So Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will have got very little value out of studying recordings of those games: the cream of Argentina’s European-based players have only entered the mix for this welcome new playground for the Pumas.
If he wants to gather intelligence on the first-up foes, Meyer will probably have to resort back to archive fare on Argentina’s World Cup 2011 campaign in New Zealand, where they were losing quarter-finalists to the All Blacks.
The Pumas did show that they remain anything but easy-beats, ending second in Pool B behind England, who were the only side to beat them in the initial stage – and by a tight 13-9 margin at that.
They put up an almighty later battle against eventual champions New Zealand, too, only leaking their first of two tries to the host nation in the 69th minute, and the scoreboard was given a slightly flattering look by Piri Weepu’s volley of seven prior penalty goals to keep any All Black butterflies at bay.
The ease – or, indeed, otherwise – by which the Boks deal with the Pumas’ assault in the virgin stages of the event will probably go a long way to determining whether the All Blacks and Wallabies give themselves the luxury of “rotating” players against them for the sake of retaining squad freshness in bigger-picture terms.
As long-serving Argentinean rugby scribe Frankie Deges points out in the August edition of SA Rugby magazine: “No one really expects (the Pumas) to win much; going in as the underdogs can only be good.
“The other teams may decide to rest players against Argentina ... but they will do so at their peril as Argentina are certainly not taking this Rugby Championship lightly.”
But quite apart from his own, oft-stated philosophy of putting out best sides at Test level wherever possible, the very “unknown” element the Pumas bring will probably preclude Meyer from any notable experimentation in the opening fixture next weekend.
Rather, in each of the two games against Argentina, he is likely to implore his troops to come out of the blocks strongly, and try to establish some daylight in scoring terms so that more hard-pressed players from recent weeks (the big Sharks contingent obviously comes quickly to mind) can then be pulled off with some safety during the second half.
One thing is sure: whatever the gruelling travelling and physical loads carried by various Bok individuals for their Super Rugby teams of late, captain Jean de Villiers and fellow senior pro Bismarck du Plessis reminded with some conviction and sincerity at a media briefing this week of how automatically invigorating just getting back into “Bok mode” is.
The amazing, seemingly untiring battleship at hooker, Du Plessis, appears to be particularly philosophical when it comes to the long-haul flight and Saturday-to-Saturday match obligation merry-go-round that is a feature of the modern rugby programme.
While his tongue-in-cheek description of a week in the life of a top rugby player earned guffaws of laughter, he was only half joking as he put it roughly like this (albeit colourfully in Afrikaans): “Look, your body feels lousy every weekend ... Monday it feels still worse, Tuesday a touch better, Wednesday better still, Thursday is alright, Friday it’s ready ... and then Saturday you crack it up all over again.”
Little will change over the next few weeks for the southern hemisphere’s finest, then – especially if the Pumas prove genuinely competitive as they warm their way into the expanded mix.
Du Plessis and De Villiers, incidentally, are likely to be among four starting survivors from the last time these teams met, at Coca-Cola Park in August 2008, when the Boks romped to a 63-9 result against an ill-prepared touring team.
The others will be Beast Mtawarira and Pierre Spies, if Meyer goes largely his “tried and trusted” route from the England series in June.
*The Pumas arrive in Cape Town on Monday and start preparations with a field session at a southern suburbs school on Tuesday afternoon.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing