The Springbok backline dazzled with their clinical finishing as Samoa were thumped 56-23 in an eight-try romp at Loftus Versfeld, but quick ball was why they were able to shine and for that credit must go to the forwards for a superb display.
The pack stepped up magnificently and physically dominated the bulky Samoans so the Springboks had front-foot ball and could show their ability to get the ball quickly wide and convert possession into tries.
There have been many critics of the Springboks saying they are one-dimensional and boring on attack, but they looked a polished, exciting offensive force on Saturday night, especially when fullback Willie le Roux joined the line. JJ Engelbrecht also scored a brilliant individual try and is rapidly growing into a fine attacking outside centre.
Like any team, if their forwards get on top, then the backs can play.
“We really are building on something special, this is a well-balanced side. We mauled well, the defence was excellent and there were some brilliant small touches,” said coach Heyneke Meyer after the game.
“It is one of the things we’ve been working on, getting turnover ball quickly wide, and we scored some awesome tries. But we did the basics well, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts brought a lot of physicality. But one guy can’t make all the difference because he can’t be at every ruck. The guys were all very focused and it was one of the best forward efforts I’ve seen.”
Bryan Habana, as ever, led the way when it came to clinical finishing, his two tries taking him to 50 in 86 Tests, with only five other players in world rugby having achieved that milestone.
“We showed that when we get quick ball and we get over the gain-line, our backs can be dangerous,” Habana said. “Most tries come from turnovers or broken field play and you’ve got to see those opportunities and execute. This weekend we were really clinical and it was pretty important that we made decisions quickly. But the guys who do all the hard work don’t always get the credit and our forwards were fantastic, as were the guys on the inside.”
Many rugby followers think an openside flank should be measured by the number of balls he steals in the ruck. This is a very simplistic view though, as former Springbok forwards coach Gary Gold so aptly explains here.
By that measure, Francois Louw was ineffective at Loftus Versfeld because he did not effect a single turnover against Samoa. But the freshly married Bath star was magnificent and was all over the field, carrying the ball strongly, slowing down ball at the rucks and defending stoutly.
Although he is not one of the bigger Springbok forwards, many of Louw’s ball-carries bashed through the Samoan defence, as epitomised by his 76th-minute charge through three tacklers and over the tryline, as well as by the fact he gained 32 metres with ball in hand during the match, with only Le Roux (82) and Habana (36) being more successful in that department.
“The guys were looking for me at the breakdown and it was a tough day at the office there, but that’s the kind of rugby I like,” Louw said. “It separates the men from the boys. But we want to play running rugby and there’s nothing better than having ball in hand, nothing beats that. We want to play positive, good strong, hard rugby.”
There aren’t many stronger or harder rugby players than Willem Alberts and the returning Sharks player was also immense on the gain-line. Not only did he carry the ball like a bullocking rhinoceros, he was an adamantium wall in defence, making 16 tackles.
The uninitiated might not fully comprehend the effort that it takes against a team like Samoa, but if you consider that 16 of their 23-man squad weighed over 100kg and that they generally like running into people, then one can begin to understand the enormity of the task. Alberts and Louw led the way, but the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Siya Kolisi and Jean de Villiers in the backline were also outstanding defensively.
“I asked for a big performance and that was a big step up physically. I believe it was a forward performance, but it was typical Springbok rugby,” Meyer cooed.
The Springboks were also excellent in the set pieces, dominating a powerful Samoan scrum and winning all 18 of their lineouts, from which they often mauled to great effect.
They varied their game intelligently, however, Louw scoring his first try from the rolling maul, but scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar then cleverly breaking blind from one in the second half to set up Habana’s second, historic try.
The Samoans are famous for their physicality, but they are also notorious for crossing the line in terms of foul play.
It was a great disappointment that, once it was clear they were losing the collisions, they resorted to dirty play.
James So’oialo’s testicle-grabbing was the talk of Pretoria afterwards, while Alesana Tuilagi was red-carded for an awful stiff-arm high tackle on De Villiers. But there was also scrumhalf Jeremy Su’a’s stamp on Louw’s head at a ruck, causing him to leave the field for stitches, and Census Johnston kicking out at Coenie Oosthuizen after the burly prop had put him on his backside with a totally legitimate tackle.
Samoa are consistently trying to portray themselves as the victims of discriminatory refereeing. “There have historically been harsh calls against us and some of the calls tonight were a wee-bit hard. The things they were referring upstairs, they looked quite soft,” captain Paul Williams said.
But coach Stephen Betham was closer to the truth when he said: “The ill discipline came down to frustration, but there’s no excuse. We’ve worked hard to get it out of our game but we were intimidated and we faltered.”
But it is also clear that the International Rugby Board are more concerned with tip tackles than thuggish acts of violence on the field. To his dishonour, Judge Jeff Blackett cleared So’oialo of any deliberate malfeasance for his indecent assault on livewire hooker Adriaan Strauss, while Su’a and Johnston weren’t even cited by commissioner Peter Larter, despite the ugly stamp being clearly visible on a television replay.
Tuilagi received a two-week ban, but it’s meaningless because the Japan-based player is on holiday now anyway.