Cape Town - The extent of South Africa’s tumble from the top bracket of rugby nations was only re-emphasised as they slipped to a third consecutive Test defeat (22-20) to equally mediocre Wales in their first 2018 fixture in Washington on Saturday.
Yes, this was a highly experimental Springbok XV - educative in mostly worrisome ways to new head coach Rassie Erasmus - but then so was the Welsh combination in the soggy error-fest before a restless, unremarkable crowd, so it said little positive about the country’s depth at this juncture.
Cold, pertinent fact: the Boks have now lost four of their last five Tests to Wales, after only one prior reverse to them in a history stretching back to 1906.
It would be absurdly premature, of course, to start questioning Erasmus’s suitability to the job already; this was a largely thankless distraction immediately ahead of an altogether more meaningful home series against England … perhaps once the dust has settled on those three encounters, we can begin to paint a picture of where the new mastermind is heading and what he’s got to work with in the lead-up to RWC 2019.
But this was nevertheless a painful experience for SA enthusiasts in a climate already so mired in despondency.
Although conditions certainly played a role, the Boks overdid that enduringly controversial box-kick, all too often only frittering away hard-earned ball, generally lacked patience and a sense of subtlety and were outfoxed at the breakdown.
On the plus side, they probably would have eked out an industrial victory, following a more purposeful second half, but for substitute flyhalf Robert du Preez’s fatal late charge-down error, and certain individuals like debutant midfielder Andre Esterhuizen and replacement prop Steven Kitshoff exploited the opportunity to shine …
Here’s how I rated the Boks in Washington:
Curwin Bosch: 4.5
On the heavy field, he struggled to cut a real presence in the last line of defence. Range of his kicking came into play positively once or twice, but also one over-cook in that department. Boks were better served when Warrick Gelant came on.
Travis Ismaiel: 5
Hot and cold by a man Erasmus presumably hopes might provide some solutions to last year’s decidedly too lightweight look to the back three. Couple of good chases and hits, but also unforced errors.
Jesse Kriel: 5.5
Cleaned out willingly and tried to be constructive from limited opportunities. But his mistake at a ruck also led to first Welsh try.
Andre Esterhuizen: 7.5
Robust, urgent presence at inside centre throughout; promising debut indeed. Crunching tackles, and reminded that his “flair” game is on the up, too, with clever breaks and other pleasing dimensions on front foot. Influential hand in both Bok tries.
Makazole Mapimpi: 6
Demonstrated the willingness of his engine. Got stuck in wherever possible, and was eager and swift on the kick chase. Smart finish for his try.
Elton Jantjies: 4.5
On his 24th appearance, the near 28-year-old was supposed to bring guidance and direction to a callow back division. It just didn’t happen. Place-kicking sound, but extremely erratic out of hand. One excellent high-ball receipt.
Ivan van Zyl: 5
Albeit presumably under instruction, would have won few new fans with regularity (and limited effect) of his near-constant hoists. Up-tempo enough in other areas, I suppose, but No 9 stays a big SA headache.
Dan du Preez: 5
The one Bok loosie to show necessary physical gusto in wretched first half; that was something. But two glaring handling howlers blotted his copybook.
Oupa Mohoje: 5
Once again, just not thunderous or impactful enough as a blindside flank, although he warmed to the occasion a bit more after halftime.
Kwagga Smith: 4
Acute disappointment, I thought, as Boks enterprisingly tried out a “natural” open-side flank. Couldn’t assert himself in any meaningful way, and Wales bossed the breakdown to costly extent.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 5.5
Might have been more demonstrative on captaincy debut for his country? Otherwise, a workmanlike shift from the pretty experienced lock … but not much more than that.
Jason Jenkins: 5.5
Powerful physical presence in largely bleak Bok first period, with some telling tackles, but faded a bit as game wore on and missed a tackle to expensive extent once.
Wilco Louw: 5.5
Penalised once for knee going to deck at scrum, and stays some way off the general level that earned him rave reviews for SA toward end of 2017.
Chiliboy Ralepelle: 6
His first start for Boks since June 2010 and he mostly ticked boxes at hooker. Seemed up with play to better extent than many colleagues in first half, grafted hard, and one key track-back tackle where his pace came to fore.
Ox Nche: 4
Shouldn’t he really have been the “impact” loose-head off bench for debut, a role to which he seems hugely suited? Largely innocuous as starter.
Steven Kitshoff: 7
Bok scrum took on a whole new level of menace when Kitshoff entered fray in 45th minute. His “popping” of direct opponent played major role in set-up of Mapimpi’s touch-down. (Thomas du Toit also looked solid as tighthead replacement.)
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