Cardiff - While the Welsh test this Saturday may be seen more as a reality check than a season-defining fixture, the questions surrounding the Springboks focus more on their own game plan than anything that the home side may serve up at the Principality stadium.
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The Boks have lost their four “foreign legion” players – and none more crucial than the duo of Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw this week, both returning to their respective European clubs as the test falls outside the set test window.
Both players lent the Springboks stability and workrate, often doing more off the ball than in the limelight as they steadied the ship after the Albany and Dublin disasters in this year’s Springbok season.
Still, both players need to be replaced and while the replacements may well be easier to pick than many think at this stage of the season, the responsibility on those players remains massive in light of the workrate of both players both on and off the ball during the matches.
Take the Italian game - a match where the Boks dominated physically against a poor Italian side that offered little in terms of attack. The Boks returned to their strengths by playing most of the game without the ball and ensuring the defensive line wasn’t breached. To think that the scoreline favoured them so heavily when they had 40 percent possession and 37 percent territory in the game shows the resoluteness of the Springbok forwards in atrocious conditions in Padova.
The tackle count naturally was also higher and Louw contributed no less than 22 tackles, matched only by hard-working duo of lock Lood de Jager and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, who both managed 22 tackles on their own. Vermeulen wasn’t far behind with 14 tackles while he also took the ball up 11 times for a net gain of 28 metres.
Both were instrumental in marshalling the defence and did the donkeywork, the unseen work that often goes on off the ball and both will be missed.
While Siya Kolisi has a high work-rate, the question on who will fill the No 8 jersey will be an interesting one. Dan du Preez has deputised from the bench for the past two test matches, and is seen as a potential star of the future while both Cheetahs players Uzair Cassiem and Oupa Mohoje could also come into reckoning for the position.
Either way, Vermeulen’s physicality will be missed, and the Boks should look to replace like for like when they make that decision.
Still, with Tendai Mtawarira missing out on the test, Steven Kitshoff has shown himself already to be an excellent replacement – not only through some strong scrummaging but also in making a massive 16 tackles – coming off the bench as a reserve. Along with Malcolm Marx returning it should give the Boks back some of the physicality they lose with Vermeulen and Louw gone.
Out back, the two standout backs – Handre Pollard and Francois Venter put in 27 tackles between them, more than the rest of the backline combined and showed just how strong they worked together against the Italians.
Wales will be a lot tougher though – and their stats underline that – having had 63 percent possession and 67 percent territory against the All Blacks and dominating all the stats except the scoreboard.
They have a 97 percent success rate at the rucks against the All Blacks and their star flanker Josh Navidi had 14 runs for 45 metres and is a key man in their line-up.
Since the Ireland defeat there has been a sense that the rest of the tour has been more about survival than taking a step forward. Cardiff will be a difficult test that will provide the team with some stern challenges at the breakdown – and losing two of the most senior leaders in the pack hasn’t helped.
It will take a huge effort from the rest to ensure that the workrate doesn’t dip and that the Welsh don’t have the same possession and territory stats as they did against the All Blacks.
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