Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has called on the same core group of players to finish the job and win the quadrangular series by beating Samoa at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Samoans are awkward opponents due to their immense physical strength, unpredictable running lines and their preference for an unstructured game. All of which calls for maturity, fronting up physically and the composure to stick with the game plan from the Springboks.
Meyer is in a catch-22 situation because he knows he has disappointed many Springbok supporters by not giving more game time in the series to the likes of Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Robert Ebersohn, Lappies Labuschagne, Pat Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Jan Serfontein.
But he also knows that any defeat in this series would absolutely horrify us – consider how much angst there has been over the performance against Scotland, where the Springboks won by 13 points – and continuity is probably the key factor when it comes to winning.
And Samoa are certainly opposition to be respected.
Before the 2011 World Cup, South Africa had played Samoa six times, won every game and scored 316 points while conceding just 65. But at North Harbour Stadium in their previous meeting, the Springboks were clinging on for dear life as the Samoans ran them ragged in the second half, the defending champions eventually scraping home 13-5.
Today’s islanders are an even better outfit. Their entire squad for Loftus Versfeld plays in either Europe, New Zealand or the rapidly improving Japanese league and they have added some structure, especially defensively, as well as set-piece technique to their flair with ball in hand and brutal physicality.
“The Samoans aren’t amateurs anymore, they are all professional players in great competitions with top coaches. They are still very dangerous in broken play, but there’s been a big improvement in their scrum and defence.
“They are very physical and tough to play against and I have a lot of respect for their ball-carrying capacity,” Meyer said this week.
The Springbok coach is undoubtedly relying on an improved effort and presence in the collisions and has called on Willem Alberts at blindside flank and Flip van der Merwe, a number four lock playing in the number five jersey, to help bring this about.
But he is also relying on the experience and calm heads that veterans such as Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Pierre Spies, Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, can bring as a safety net in a Test that could easily become a torrid test of composure.
There will probably be some pressure on the Springbok scrum – Van der Merwe’s added bulk in the second row will help there – but Meyer seems confident that the Springbok lineout can dominate.
They will surely, therefore, rely on the boot of Steyn to win territory and force the Samoans to try and run pressure ball from their own half.
But the territory game also requires that the Springboks get on the front foot in the tight exchanges and secure much quicker ball than they did against Scotland.
There is apparently a late change in referee for Saturday’s Test, with Irishman John Lacey no longer officiating. Frenchman Pascal Gauzere is set to take over and his display in the Durban match between the Springboks and Italy suggests he will be much more willing to ensure Samoa cooperate and play fair at the breakdowns than his countryman, Roman Poite, was in Nelspruit.
And the Springboks should also not fall into the trap of thinking Samoa will only attack with blind physicality. Although the likes of wing Alesana Tuilagi (117kg) and reserve centre Seilala Mapasua (120kg) do often just tuck the ball under the arm and employ the “Samoan sidestep” to try and knock the defender’s block off, there is still a solid skills set among the backs and elusive runners such as Johnny Leota, Alapati Leiua, James So’oialo and Tusi Pisi.
Outside centre JJ Engelbrecht, in particular, is a solid block of meat and muscle in the Springbok backline, but he is prone to being manipulated out of alignment by skilful runners.
If Meyer is not going to experiment, if he insists on sending out his best available team to do duty week in, week out, then it seems only fair that the public start to see that continuity pay off with more consistent performances.
Having learnt from the Springboks’ failure to dominate Scotland, nobody is expecting a walkover against Samoa. But a controlled, convincing victory (whatever the score-line) will go a long way in reassuring their fans that Meyer is building a team that is able to challenge for Rugby Championship honours later this year.
South Africa: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Bryan Habana, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers/Jan Serfontein, 11-Bjorn Basson, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Pierre Spies, 7-Willem Alberts/Siya Kolisi, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Flip van der Merwe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Bismarck du Plessis, 17-Trevor Nyakane, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Juandre Kruger, 20-Siya Kolisi/Marcell Coetzee, 21-Piet van Zyl, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.
Samoa: 15-James So’oialo, 14-Alapati Leiua, 13-Paul Williams, 12-Johnny Leota, 11-Alesana Tuilagi, 10-Tusi Pisi, 9-Jeremy Sua, 8-Taiasina Tuifua, 7-Jack Lam, 6-Ofisa Treviranus, 5-Daniel Leo, 4-Teofilo Paulo, 3-Census Johnston, 2-Wayne Ole Avei, 1-Sakaria Taulafo. Replacements – 16-Ti’i Paulo, 17-Logovii Mulipola, 18-James Johnston, 19-Kane Thompson, 20-Junior Poluleuligaga, 21-Brandon Vaaulu, 22-Seilala Mapusua, 23-Alafoti Faosiliva.