Last weekend, South Africa were defeating the British & Irish Lions to win the series 2-1. This weekend they found themselves opening their Rugby Championship campaign at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium against Argentina. After the physicality of the last few weeks, it was no real shock to see a heavily changed 23 from the Springboks, but they were on the board in a matter of minutes via the boot of Elton Jantjies after lock Marcos Kremer was pinged for not rolling away. Between bouts of kick tennis, the Pumas were looking to attack, but an attempt to spread the ball on 12 minutes saw the ball go to floor as Sebastián Cancelliere tried to find Bautista Delguy on the loop, and when Cobus Reinach recovered the loose ball, he was able to just hold off the chase of a despairing Rodrigo Bruni to score the opening try. Argentina were soon on the board with a penalty from Nicolás Sánchez, but the fly half was beaten in the air by Eben Etzebeth just minutes later, and Jantjies’ cross kick was just collected on the touchline following a juggle from Aphelele Fassi for his second try in 2 games. South Africa were taking control and winning the penalties, but rather than pressing the boot on the Pumas’ neck, they chose to try building a score with the boot, with 6 points for Jantjies and a miss from Frans Steyn, but this allowed the Pumas to stay in contention as Sánchez kicked 2 penalties in the final 5 minutes of the half for a halftime score of 21-9.
Anyone hoping that the Boks would open things up in the second half were sorely disappointed as it was more of the same, so much so that I lost count of the number of times I yawned. Sánchez missed a drop goal on the first attack of the half, but settled for 2 more penalties, which were cancelled out by Jantjies while Steyn missed again. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, it looked like The Boks had earned their bonus point as Fassi went over for another try, but it was ruled out for an offence by Malcolm Marx in the build-up. However with just 2 minutes remaining they found the all-important breakthrough as a strong run from Marco van Staden put them on the front foot and acting 9 Morné Steyn fed replacement scrum half Jaden Hendrikse to score in the corner on his debut. With the clock in the red, Argentina launched one last attack and when they made it up to the Springbok line it looked like they may make the Boks pay for doing the bare minimum to get a bonus point by taking it away at the death, but Matías Alemanno lost possession as he forced his was over the line and the game ended in a 32-12 bonus point victory for the World Champions.
A show of depth
After such a hard Test series against the Lions, it was no shock to see the Springboks fielding a very different squad this weekend, with the majority of the 23 not involved or only playing a limited role in the previous Tests. And yet to put in such a dominant performance was a strong reminder of the strength in depth that the Boks have.
They have the personnel to put out 2 completely different back lines that could both excel at international level (Damian Willemse did not have a good time at 15 here but is a truly talented player) and that would still leave players like Curwin Bosch, Herschel Jantjies, André Esterhuizen, Rohan Janse van Resburg and Morné Steyn left over. Meanwhile in the pack, they have at least 3 solid options at each position in the front row, while their world class ideal back row of Kolisi, Vermeuelen and du Toit is backed up by such quality that even Dan du Preez—who has been a star for the Sharks and then Sale—could only make the bench for this game. If they are weak anywhere, it is perhaps at lock, where they have 4 stars in Etzebeth, de Jager, Mostert and Snyman, but could find themselves short of experience if a couple of them were unavailable at the same time.
Yesterday, I wrote about how much the All Blacks team is chopped and changed under Ian Foster. Well the Springboks squad is largely settled, allowing them to improve as a unit, but they are still taking their chance to test the wider squad and those on the fringes, to ensure that they have every chance of putting together a run of wins.
What really became clear to me during this match was that we had 2 teams at different stages of preparation. While many of the Springboks 23 didn’t feature against the Lions, they were training and preparing alongside those that did, and then went straight onto this. As a result, they were not just match-fit, but fully match-ready, having just seen off the best of Great Britain and Ireland.
By contrast, Argentina played Tests against Romania and 2 massively understrength Wales teams, before then having the majority of a month off. That meant that not only had the team not reached the same level of competition in their preparation from the tour, but they also then had a drop off in intensity between the July Tests and this competition.
As such, the Pumas came in undercooked, and this was accentuated even more by the high level of a South Africa team that was at peak intensity, so much so that even star back rowers Rodrigo Bruni, Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa could barely make an impact on the game, while the handling error that led to Reinach’s opening try was a timing error caused by the team not being up to speed and then accentuated by blood replacement Cancelliere having just entered the fray mere seconds before for his first Test cap since 2019.
Expect to see the Pumas grow into the tournament over the coming weeks. As for the Springboks, it’s probably more a question of whether they want to start playing attacking rugby or just putting everyone to sleep.