Rugby Championship

Boks have fresh strike potential

2014-08-13 23:00
Handré Pollard (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg – Handré Pollard earning a very significant, priority ticket to pull the flyhalf strings, Willie le Roux a burgeoning bundle of tricks from the back, the ambitious new possibilities offered by Damian de Allende at outside centre ... the Springboks seem to be moving further and further away from conservative selections.

They look every bit as equipped – and then some? – on paper to earn a second genuinely one-sided home victory in two seasons over Argentina on Saturday.

Don’t take that as any guarantee that Jean de Villiers’s side will threaten or beat last season’s 73-13 outcome in the corresponding Rugby Championship first-round fixture: it is statistically unlikely given that the freak 2013 score-line at FNB Stadium was, and still is, a record in margin terms for either the new competition or its Tri-Nations predecessor.

It was one of those days where things fell apart for the Pumas, especially in the second half as they leaked seven of their embarrassing nine tries and there was simply no place to hide the more the Boks warmed to their task and flung the ball around with glee.

As reminded in this space earlier this week, the least fancied of the four nations in this tournament are usually more resilient than that ... and will determinedly aim, at the very least, for a return to much less one-sided service.

But at the same time, it will not be especially reassuring to the South Americans that the Bok starting line-up unveiled by Heyneke Meyer on Wednesday offers significant potential for yet more in the way of nightmarish, attacking potency.

A couple of factors do slightly weigh against the hosts running riot again, one being that South Africa at Loftus (17:00 kick-off) will be without two vital “generals” earmarked at the start of the 2014 Test season to be key members of the mix, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez.

With a bit of luck, seasoned lineout maestro Matfield will be back at his No 5 post sooner rather than later, although it is already known that Du Preez will be sidelined for the remainder of the year.

The ace scrumhalf, don’t forget, was just being reintroduced to Test rugby for the first time in as many as 22 months in the equivalent clash with the Pumas in 2013, and got on the park as a second-half substitute for a fairly generous stint just as the Bok onslaught was reaching a crescendo.

Another possible tempering consideration -- and maybe one of relatively few beacons of hope for Argentina to cling to as firm underdogs -- is that the Boks will effectively be trialling some first-time alliances in the green and gold, and things don’t always go swimmingly under such circumstances immediately – if at all.

De Allende, for all his versatility, power and deft touches, is greatly more familiar with the cares of inside centre and wing than he is the No 13 role, so how he dovetails with his Test and franchise captain Jean de Villiers in midfield will be watched with intense interest by coach Meyer and his lieutenants. No doubt from more afar, too.

But the commendable decision to stick with Pollard at pivot, after the 20-year-old’s promising lone prior appearance against Scotland in Port Elizabeth, is another reason for believing the Boks are properly, sincerely committed to a bold new way of doing business if they are to overtake modern nemesis the All Blacks, the World Cup holders, both in the Championship and then on the IRB rankings where they still limit South Africa to a solid but all too definite second.

Not only will Pollard attack the advantage line himself with no small gusto and physical willingness, but his passing skills and special sense in knowing when to probe gaps or create overlaps are likely to find strong favour with all those operating outside him.

Again, his effectiveness or otherwise – and there is a big lobby willing on the former – on Saturday could depend on how quickly he strikes up a synergy with his No 9 Ruan Pienaar, who was not in the match-day squad at all against Scotland: they will be operating in tandem for the very first time.

An unashamed Pollard advocate, I would not discount the possibility that he has brutally closed down, by year’s end, opportunities for all other flyhalf comers in the green and gold.

In the engine room, the Boks should largely benefit from a climate of rosier continuity.

The loose trio of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen has become something of a “firm” over the past year at the very least, and the return to full fitness of Tendai Mtawarira also means that his all-Sharks front row alliance with the Du Plessis brothers snaps back into business even more seamlessly.

If there is one area of moderate concern, it is the first-time pairing of Bakkies Botha and Lood de Jager at lock; both are No 4s by both instinct and experience.

Then again, we have already witnessed, in the June Test period, such gladdening signs of De Jager’s combination of brawn with fleet-footedness that the Cheetahs man making a swift success of the No 5 berth cannot be discounted at all.

It is a slightly weird thought that when the Boks last thumped the Pumas on South African soil, it was with now-faded elements like Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht and Juandre Kruger part of the starting line-up and the efficient but fairly predictable Morne Steyn (among Saturday’s subs) the first-choice at No 10.

The latest combination, if anything, has a more promising collective scent of verve ... even if a revisit of the 73-13 lightning strike falls short this weekend by some distance on the scoreboard.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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