After a few days of arguing who messed up more out of Mathieu Raynal and Bernard Foley, we finally reached the second half of round 5, which saw the Pumas hosting South Africa in Buenos Aires. The Springboks had stuck with the same starting XV that demolished Australia 2 weeks ago but went behind after 8 minutes when Franco Mostert’s hands in the ruck allowed Emiliano Boffelli to kick a penalty from halfway, though Damian Willemse soon cancelled this out with a penalty of his own from much closer in and both kickers missed their next attempt from range. It was the South Africans who made the first chance of note, going to the blind side created off a lineout maul to get Canan Moodie up to the try line, and while Jaden Hendrikse was held up with his pick-and-go, it was only through the efforts of Santiago Carreras, who had been in an offside position, leading to a penalty try for the visitors. Boffelli soon cut the lead with a penalty, but the Boks won a penalty off the restart and went to the corner, and while they were unable to drive the maul over, the ball went out to the backs and Hendrikse soon found space on the fringe of a ruck to snipe over between the posts. As the penalty count began to rise from the Pumas, the Springboks took full advantage, going to the corner again and driving Malcolm Marx over for their third try, Argentina welcoming Carreras back to the pitch but now down 6-22. A clever lineout move saw Siya Kolisi release Marx into the Pumas 22, and with the defence under heavy pressure, a series of penalties saw Gonzalo Bertranou sent to the bin, but South Africa were unable to add another try before the break, as Mostert fumbled the lineout and though he eventually knocked the ball backwards, referee James Doleman decreed that as the ball was initially lost forward and Mostert never recovered control, it was a knock-on.
If the first half had been mainly fought in the tight, the second half was a display of open rugby as both teams looked to play the ball with very little thought for it’s security, and while the Pumas were suddenly looking a threat despite the numerical disadvantage, poor passing and handling skills—and an interception from Damian de Allende—cost them a couple of early chances. However the extra pressure was drawing penalties from the Springboks, which led to Willie le Roux being sent to the bin on the hour, though yet another handling error from the Pumas allowed South Africa to clear their lines. The hosts finally got across the line on 65 minutes as Cubelli went off the back of a scrum only to be held up over the line, however Kwagga Smith’s actions to hold him up were deemed illegal, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card for the flanker. And with a 2-man advantage, the Pumas were soon scoring again, with a flat inside pass from Marcos Kremer releasing Matías Moroni, who rounded any remaining defenders to ground under the posts—despite every attempt from the TMO to find a loss of control in the grounding. With their lead cut to 2 but le Roux returning to the field, a penalty allowed the Boks their first real opportunity in the Pumas 22 since the first half, and a series of phases battering the home defence soon saw Damian de Allende fight his way over beneath the posts, Frans Steyn’s conversion making it a 2-score game with 5 minutes remaining. And the Boks secured the win in the final minute as they spread the ball through the hands to release Makazole Mapimpi down the left, with the wing drawing the final defender and playing the ball back inside to Marx for his second try, Steyn kicking the conversion for a 20-36 victory.
Have this Argentina side ever played together before? You wouldn’t have thought it from the way they attacked in this game! To say they looked disjointed is somewhat of an understatement.
Highly experienced scrum half Tomás Cubelli was throwing passes to the knees of his locks and behind his centres, floated wide passes were dropping between players, while the timing was off every time the Pumas tried a soft pop of the ball into the hands of someone coming on to it at pace. Even a couple of promising cross-kicks to space on the left wing early on were wasted as they came with centres hugging the touchline rather than the speedy wings who could have converted these chances into points.
Moroni’s try showed just how dangerous they can be when they get the timing and the passing right—and even that pass from Kremer was right on the border between flat and forward—and such was their dominance for much of the second half, a more accurate performance could have seen the Pumas going into the final round of still in with a chance of winning the Championship.
We’ve seen it a number of times since the World Cup: the defending champions are beatable, you just need to play them the right way. And the right way to do so is to take the game to them and challenge them by playing an open attacking game.
By playing a game that focuses on playing tight and getting forward dominance in the set piece, as the British & Irish Lions did on their most recent tour, you are playing into the hands of arguably the most dominant pack in World Rugby; and while the Pumas won a couple of penalties against Frans Malherbe at the scrum in the first half, this allowed the Springboks to take control of the game and move the ball—and Pumas pack—around the pitch at their leisure, keeping the backs poised and fresh for the moments that they were needed, such as Hendrikse’s try.
However, the moment that you start trying to vary your attack, with balls back inside, clever cross-kicks, crash balls and working the ball out wide to create overlaps, the Springboks will find themselves stretched and—as good as they are defensively—even they will not be able to cover every gap. And no offense to Jesse Kriel, but the absence of Lukhanyo Am just makes the Boks even more vulnerable.
That’s not to say that a varied attacking game will win you the game. You still need to try to match the Boks in the set piece and find a way to deal with their physicality, their aerial dominance and increasingly diverse attacking game. But by taking the game to them in attack, you’re giving yourself the best chance to win and giving the fans a spectacle at the same time.