Springboks defence coach John McFarland said on Tuesday that his team will need to lay down the law early on against Argentina in what he predicts will be two very tough Tests at the start of South Africa’s Rugby Championship campaign.
“I think they’re going to be two very difficult Tests against Argentina and that’s what we’re focusing on because you get the same four points for beating the Pumas as you do for beating the All Blacks.
“Argentina have certainly improved and they have a lot of experience, so we’re going to have to do the hard yards. We have to dominate the collisions and set a defensive line in front of them. As the second Test against Wales showed, when we were maybe too complacent, if you don’t bring your top game into a Test match, you’ll be in trouble,” McFarland said.
Although there have been some protests over too many veteran players being used by Heyneke Meyer, one of the greatest strengths in the current Springbok squad is the considerable experience it contains. Just a year out from the World Cup, it is worth noting that successful campaigns have been built around experience; send a green team and you’re on a hiding to nothing. South Africa’s poor 2003 performance was partly due to their squad only having a combined 397 caps, or 13 per player; in 2007, Jake White assembled a total of 809 caps (an average of 26 per player).
The current 30-man Springbok squad has 964 caps between them. That’s without Victor Matfield’s record 113 appearances, but his replacement, Juan Smith, brings 69 caps himself. Fourie du Preez is a certainty for the World Cup if fit and he has 70 Tests to his name.
For McFarland, players like Smith and Bakkies Botha are crucial for the team dynamic.
“You can’t buy experience, like we saw when Bakkies came back late last year. Guys like him and Juan are inspirational, they never give up and they’re an example to all of us in how to keep going,” McFarland said.
For Smith, his determination has brought the sweet taste of success as he returns to the Springbok squad he holds so dear, the bitterness of his achilles injury that curdled his career for so long a thing of the past.
“It’s been a long road back, I was out for 28 months, I had announced I was finished and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I had five operations and they were tough times, it was all very dark times. I felt I had no other choice but to call it a day.
“I had one operation in Bloemfontein and then three in Pretoria. After that I tried everything to fix the achilles but there was no way around it and I was forced to retire. But then a surgeon in Bloemfontein, Dr Johan Kruger, said he could give me a chance of playing again. But for me it wasn’t about playing again, I just wanted to walk without pain. For 25 months I would stand up and go to bed with pain.
“I could immediately feel the difference after that operation, the next morning there was no pain, and I said to my wife that I’m going to try and play again,” Smith said on Tuesday.
Since making a fairytale return to the rugby field for Toulon in September 2013, Smith has dished up consistently brilliant performances in his 28 appearances for the French club, helping them to the dream double of the Heineken Cup and the Top 14 title last season.
While Smith is by no means assured of playing against Argentina – it is hard to see him jumping ahead of Vermeulen, Louw, Alberts and Coetzee in the loose forward queue, while competition at lock is also stiff – there will definitely be a new face in the number 13 jersey against the Pumas.
It is sad that Meyer does not have faith in the obvious abilities of Juan de Jongh and S’Bura Sithole, and it looks likely that the uncapped Damian de Allende, used at inside centre and on the wing by the Stormers, will be pressed into duty as the outside centre to captain Jean de Villiers.
While De Allende is obviously a potent force with ball in hand, it is in defence where teams like New Zealand and Australia can make a fool of anyone in midfield who does not know exactly what they are doing.
McFarland said playing at 13 was all about taking your time when it comes to defence.
“It’s a bit different to playing at 12, where things happen quicker because the flyhalf is on top of you. You have a bit more time at 13 and the important things is not to come too hard, don’t bite the bait,” the defensive guru said.
Argentina were destroyed 73-13 by the Springboks in Soweto last year, but they have not played a Test at Loftus Versfeld before. But Pretoria was not a kind place for the South America combined team in the past, with the tourists of 1982 losing 50-18 and their 1984 successors going down 32-15.