Much of the blame for South Africa’s late defeat in Brisbane has been laid on the scrum, but what hasn’t been mentioned is the effect losing captain Victor Matfield had on the set-piece. And now the Springboks are set to name an interim captain on Tuesday afternoon, with Schalk Burger also injured, leaving Francois Louw as the likely new leader.
The Springbok scrum had been dominant for the first hour against the Wallabies, the Sharks front-row of Jannie du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis producing a much-improved display, but with the whole front row controversially replaced, the home side ended the match in charge of that set-piece, providing them with a priceless platform for their late charge.
Captain Matfield had of course left the field in the first half with a hamstring strain and, although the lanky lock does not contribute a huge amount in terms of scrummaging, his absence from the tight five was nevertheless keenly felt as the Wallabies stole control in that facet.
That’s because the Australians were allowed to close the gap at set-up and engage early, something an experienced member of the tight five like Matfield would no doubt have brought to the attention of referee Nigel Owens. Instead, Burger was leading the side from the back of the scrum and the Wallabies got away with their clever tactic.
“The Australians changed their set-up, they came a bit closer which gave them more shoulder contact before the engagement. It disrupted us and we found it very difficult to set the scrum. Sometimes it is difficult to adapt and they were able to come at us early in the scrums in the second half,” scrum coach Pieter de Villiers said on Monday.
Much has been written about Louw’s leadership qualities, the 30-year-old having done a marvellous job as captain of Bath. He was another experienced old head who was sorely missed in the final quarter in Brisbane, not least of all because of his work at the breakdown, especially since the Wallabies brought on David Pocock to partner Michael Hooper and turn the tide in another area of previous Springbok dominance.
Louw left the field because of a bad gash to his cheek, but doctor Craig Roberts said on Monday that he will be fine to play against the All Blacks this weekend.
A less-obvious facial blow was suffered by Burger, whose cheekbone apparently popped out when he blew his nose after the game. The veteran loose forward went for a scan on Monday and the news is apparently not good, given the hurried announcement from the Springbok camp on Monday night that an interim captain will be announced on Tuesday afternoon.
If Burger is ruled out, then it seems Louw, his former Western Province team-mate, will beat him to become the Springboks’ 55th Test captain.
Amidst all the injury negativity, one of the most positive aspects of the Rugby Championship opener was the return to top form of the two Du Plessis brothers and Mtawarira. Hard, experienced men such as them will be needed at the World Cup.
“We’re very happy with the way the scrums started off. Heyneke had faith in the Sharks front row and we’re very happy they came through because they were under pressure.
“Jannie had a very good game, his work-rate was good and in the previous game too. He scrummed very well, so we’re very happy with that. No player is ever in top shape for the whole year.
“Beast also scrummed very well and I thought Heinke van der Merwe, for someone who hasn’t played for the Springboks for a long time, did very well too,” De Villiers said.
The match against Australia provided the opportunity for some fringe players to stake their claim for the World Cup squad and nobody took their chance better than Lood de Jager, who replaced Matfield after 20 minutes.
“We wanted to use the match for rotation, for guys to get game time. Some players got a bit of experience and that will be great for the World Cup.
“The plan was always to rotate guys up front because it’s in the best interests of the team for players to get game time and enough match fitness.
“Lood gave a great little performance, he was strong in the scrum and great overall, making several tackles. He had a very high work-rate,” De Villiers said.
Doctor Roberts also announced that flank Marcell Coetzee is likely to miss Saturday’s game due to a big contusion to the muscles around the knee, while he confirmed that Jean de Villiers, who came through 60 minutes for Western Province at the weekend “fairly well”, Fourie du Preez, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Frans Steyn and Pieter-Steph du Toit will all continue their rehab with the Springbok squad but are not ready to play yet.