The World Champions upped their preparation ahead of the Rugby Championship and their first match since winning the Rugby World Cup with the Springbok Showdown. 50 home-based players were split into 2 squads of 25 and faced off in a “Green v Gold” (though going by the kits, Green v White would be more accurate) match at Newlands, where they had been due to face Scotland in their first post-World Cup international.
In a sleep-inducing first half, Damian Willemse and Elton Jantjies traded penalties, but those of us who didn’t fall asleep saw Willemse miss 3 out of 4 kicks, leading to Gold trailing 6-3 at the break. The second half started with more positive rugby, but it was bad news for Gold as Willemse was rightly adjudged to have prevented a probable try by pulling back Yaw Penxe out wide, leading to a penalty try for Green and a 10-minute spell on the naughty step for the fly half. Though they gave away more penalties than Gold, Green built some dominance in the set piece and on 56 minutes, they drove a maul up to the try line from close range, allowing captain Siya Kolisi to break off and cross for the try. As time passed with little success for Gold, Green secured the win with a 3ʳᵈ try, positioning a number of forwards out wide for a cross-kick following a 2-man lineout, and a fortuitous bounce off the head of JD Schickerling and a scramble on the floor resulted in replacement back row Juarno Augustusdotting the ball down over the line. As the clock ticked down, a break from Lukhanyo Am set up Gold for a commiseration try, but Jason Jenkins was held up over the line and the Green defence held strong following the resultant scrum, with Thomas du Toit winning the penalty that allowed Gold to kick the ball to touch to finish the game as 25-9 victors.
South Africa won the Rugby World Cup off the back of strong defensive displays and powerful set pieces allowing them to score a try or 2 to best their opponent. Judging by this match, there is no immediate change in tactics planned under new head coach Jacques Nienaber.
In the first half especially, the game very rarely went past a handful of phases before the ball was kicked downfield. Territory was at the forefront of players’ minds tactically, and though the attacking play increased after the break, it was still very limited.
It was very hard for the players in the back 3 to show their quality in attack and I felt especially sorry for Rosko Specman, who worked tirelessly in a support role and chasing kicks up and down his wing for very little reward.
Don’t expect the Springboks to be throwing the ball around in the coming years. A physical, defensive, territory-focused game may not be the most attractive rugby to watch, but South Africa do it so damn well.
While a defensive performance isn’t the most attractive of things at the best of times, it becomes a hundred times worse when the players are as rusty as the 50 on show in this match. Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March, but unlike New Zealand and Australia, South Africa has not had any top-flight rugby since then and the only players who have were not included as they are based abroad.
While the teams often looked to play the territory game, there were times that they actually tried to played the ball, only for things to come to a swift close due to someone knocking the ball on or throwing a loose pass. Meanwhile a number of lineouts ended with scrappy ball off the top, putting the attacking team under immediate pressure. Even a large portion of the kicking game was questionable, with some deep kicks being fielded too easily and a number of more attacking kicks not paying off.
The Springboks still have time before the Rugby Championship begins, but they don’t have the competitive matches under their belt that the majority of the Australian and New Zealand squad do, and that could harm them in their opening matches.
With Handré Pollard currently missing through injury, this was the perfect opportunity for Damian Willemse to stake his claim for the Springboks 10 jersey and potentially even win the starting job ahead of Elton Jantjies. Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out for him.
His kicking off the tee left a lot to be desired, only managing to bisect the posts on 1 of 4 attempts, but that was far from the end of it. He certainly tried to get things going in attack and get the team firing, but too often this came to a quick end as players did not seem to be on his wavelength – though there was a lovely grubber in behind early on that required a wonderful covering tackle from far-side winger Penxe to stop Specman when a try looked likely. And then unfortunately, Willemse found himself spending 10 minutes in the bin having given away a penalty try by pulling back Penxe when he was chasing a kick into the in-goal, and by the time he returned to the pitch, he was moved to 15 as Curwin Bosch had entered the fray.
Granted Jantjies didn’t blow the proverbial roof off with his performance, but he did what was required to get the team the win and did not seem as involved in any errors or negative moments.
However, this may not be Willemse’s chances of a starting spot gone, as he put in a good performance after returning to the pitch at fullback, including controlling the air when coming forward to take high balls. Very few players got a chance to stand out in the back lines, while having a playmaker at 15 would give the Boks extra tactical options, so don’t be too surprised if the 22-year old gets the nod there to open the Rugby Championship.
Replacing the Beast
This is a new era for the World Champions, as they look to go on without Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who retired from international rugby following the World Cup. Luckily, they been spoiled for years by already having one of the (in my opinion) top 5 looseheads in the world sharing time with him: Steven Kitshoff.
The Stormers prop did not have the best of starts to this game, struggling in some of the early scrums, but soon sorted things out and started winning penalties at the set piece with some degree of regularity. Meanwhile, he continued to excel around the park, with his handling skills highlighted by a great pickup from a terrible pass by Scarra Ntubeni deep in their own half. But more than anything, he has an engine, lasting longer than most of the front rowers while getting himself around the pitch, such as when he went from a scrum on the Green 22 to winning a turnover penalty – there are few props who win turnovers as often as him – on the Gold 22 on the other side of the pitch following a Green break!
Kitshoff has the number 1 shirt secured for the forseeable future, the Boks just need to find the right man to come off the bench.