You could not have hoped for a much better workout at the start of the season than the Springboks enjoyed in their 44-10 victory over Italy at Kings Park in Durban.
Some top-class attacking play led to five tries and even the defence was subjected to a stern examination in the second and third quarters, with the Italians only managing to score one try despite enjoying the vast majority of possession.
While a handful of debutants made exciting starts to their international careers, it was a veteran in the form of Bryan Habana who stole the limelight with a magnificent performance.
He scored a great individual try in the 67th minute as the Springboks, unusually for them, threw turnover ball wide more in hope than expectation, but Habana turned on the afterburners and raced through half the Italian side as the hosts finally shifted the momentum after half an hour of defending.
While Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer rightfully pointed to a slackening in the intensity of the defence, credit must also be given to Italy for finally putting a premium on possession and hanging on to the ball for long periods.
They enjoyed an astonishing 97% of possession in the first nine minutes of the second half but, even with Bjorn Basson in the sin-bin for a high tackle, they could only cross the tryline once, through centre Alberto Sgarbi from close range.
But the Springboks had attacking firepower aplenty in their backline, with debutant scrumhalf Jano Vermaak providing crisp service, JJ Engelbrecht impressing with his pace and direct running at outside centre and new fullback Willie le Roux showing some lovely touches.
But as Meyer said afterwards, it was the pace – displayed especially by wings Habana and Basson – that had most pleased him.
“I was very happy with the guys and thought they played well. Willie le Roux showed a lot of pace, and so did JJ and Bjorn Basson. It’s great to have extra pace out wide, and I think Bryan Habana fed off that,” Meyer said.
As the Rugby Championship looms, it is encouraging to see the Springboks fielding a back three that can match the All Blacks, who are always the benchmark when it comes to counter-attacking rugby.
Habana was particularly potent as a counter-attacking force off several stupid kicks by the Italians, and it was his sheer pace after fielding an errant kick that set up Engelbrecht for his 23rd-minute try.
It also helps when your flyhalf has as prodigious a boot as Morné Steyn, who kicked immaculately to collect 19 points through five conversions and three penalties. The massive clearing kick he unleashed in the 64th minute also broke the shackles and led directly to the penalty that captain Jean de Villiers said had been the turning point of the second half.
Meyer wants to give game time to as many of his squad as possible in this quadrangular series, but he also has to ensure the momentum gained in Durban is not disrupted.
“I want to try a few guys so there will be a few changes for next week but I will try and keep the core of the team together,” said Meyer.
The loss of Vermaak with a torn hamstring is a blow after his encouraging start, and Piet van Zyl, one of the stars of the Cheetahs team, has been called up. Ruan Pienaar, who came off the bench in Durban, is the obvious man to start against Scotland in Nelspruit next weekend, but whether Meyer will utilise the game-breaking skills of Francois Hougaard as the replacement scrumhalf remains to be seen. The media speculation about his role in the Oscar Pistorius case must be weighing heavily on the young man’s mind.
Scotland succumbed to the huge physicality of the Samoans in losing 17-27 in the early game at King’s Park and the bad news for them is that they can expect more of the same from the Springboks.
With the added threat of clinical finishing, thanks to all that pace out wide to make use of the front-foot ball.