The Springboks are treating today’s Rugby Championship opener against Argentina at Kings Park here (5pm kick-off) as the first leg of a mini-series that simply has to be won.
“It is a hugely important game for us, especially considering we get on the plane on Sunday (tomorrow) to go to Buenos Aires to play the Pumas again,” coach Rassie Erasmus said, intimating that it would be disastrous for morale should the Boks not pack four championship points into their suitcases tomorrow morning.
“The competition draw has us playing the same team in consecutive weeks, so we have broken this fortnight down into a mini-series, and one that is crucial for us going forward in the Championship.”
South Africa have yet to win the Rugby Championship since its inception in 2012, when Argentina was added to the Tri Nations countries, with New Zealand winning it outright every year except for 2015 when they shared the title with Australia.
That was also the year the Springboks came last, with Argentina otherwise the perennial wooden-spoonists.
This year’s draw has been kind to the Boks because their first two matches are very winnable, with respect to the Pumas, and the opportunity is there for the Boks to build up a good head of steam before the more challenging fixtures ahead. After the away match in Buenos Aires, the Boks return home for a week’s break and then play Australia in Brisbane and the All Blacks in Wellington.
It would mean the world to the players’ confidence if they arrive in Australia unbeaten.
But if you put yourself in the boots of the Argentinians, they will in turn be feeling that this game in Durban is one to target. They have won here before, of course, almost three years ago to the day, and they are more than comfortable playing South African opposition. They have been doing it all year in their Jaguares incarnation.
“They have been here for much of this season so it is a major plus for them to be kicking off in a country they know so well having been in the SA pool in Super Rugby,” Erasmus pointed out.
“They will have a smooth transition into the Championship, with the same coach and players. And they know our players so well from Super Rugby, and they will not fear our guys after having beaten all our teams in Buenos Aires.
“They are difficult customers; if you take your eye off the ball against them you lose games, and sometimes they beat teams heavily. I don’t know why some people think they are pushovers,” Erasmus warned.
The Bok coach has selected a powerhouse pack that includes two fetchers in the match-23 because Erasmus is wary of being caught short in the breakdown battle which he regards as one of the keys to winning the match.
“They are extremely good over the ball. I think referee Ben O’Keefe is going to have a tough time managing the breakdown,” Erasmus said.
“We will go hard at the breakdown. They look to bite hard at every second or third ruck, so we must be ready for that.”
To this end, the vastly experienced Francois Louw is starting at openside flank and he is covered off the bench by debutant Marco van Staden, an out-and-out ball scavenger.
But Erasmus has said that if the situation requires it, he will play Louw and Van Staden as a combination in the second half. “If we are battling at the ground, then I will bring Marco on and Flo will move to No8.
If it’s a case of one guy struggling to keep up with the pace of the game, then it will be a straight swap with the tired player.
“But Flo has had six or seven weeks of pre-season training (with Bath), so hopefully he can go the distance,” Erasmus said.
The need for breakdown experts is to a degree down to the unavailability of Duane Vermeulen, who is an exceptional ball winner. His replacement at No8, the rangy Warren Whiteley, is a different type of player. “We’ve had to re-jig our back-row dynamic,” Erasmus admitted.
“We’ve got a lot of speed in the back row now with Warren, but we also have guys who can poach and force turnovers. Having a guy like Malcolm Marx at hooker will also offset the loss of Duane. But he won’t play the whole game and we have to make sure we have the balance right when Malcolm goes off.
“We have to stop them from getting momentum at the rucks.”