Meeting a fired-up Argentina team on their home turf is never an easy prospect, regardless of what happened the previous week, so when the Springboks decided not to “pitch” physically for their Rugby Championship Test in Mendoza at the weekend, it was always going to be a recipe for disaster.
For whatever reason, the Springboks failed to match the intensity and physicality of the Pumas and for long periods it just looked as if they weren’t “up” for the game.
With Argentina attacking the collisions and breakdowns with tremendous ferocity, it meant the Springboks were always on the back foot and had little decent ball to actually launch the attacking side of their game, which had been so impressive the weekend before back in Johannesburg.
The Springboks eventually won the Test 22-17 with two late penalties by Morne Steyn, but it was hardly an authoritative performance. The massive physicality that had blown the Pumas away at the FNB Stadium and set up the record 73-13 victory a week earlier was as absent this weekend as the president of the South African Rugby Union.
The home side pressed forward from the outset and, after robbing scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar of possession at a ruck – he endured a torrid day as he was hassled throughout at the breakdowns – they scored the opening try through flank Juan Manuel Leguizamon after just two minutes.
It meant the Pumas’ prayers were answered in terms of getting their passionate crowd behind them and they enjoyed a 10-3 lead after 10 minutes as Felipe Contepomi and Steyn traded penalties.
Centre Contepomi was then partly to blame for the Springboks’ only try, in the 14th minute, as he failed with a clearance kick, gifting the ball to the Springbok backs. Willie le Roux – he didn’t have the best of games overall – then showed tremendous hands to put wing Bjorn Basson away for the try.
But the Springboks’ hopes were severely dented just before half-time when centre Marcelo Bosch crashed through to score Argentina’s second try.
The Pumas had generally tried to avoid lineouts – a Springbok strength – in the first half, but eventually they had one inside the 22, only the third of the match. From there, another direct attack with short pop passes led to Bosch powering over.
The Argentine loose forwards continued to rob and spoil the Springboks’ ball in the second half and their more direct approach with ball-in-hand also hurt the South Africans. But there is something almost naive about this Springbok side in that they sometimes give the impression that they expect the opposition to be placid, to allow them an easy stroll through a game. And so not enough numbers were committed to the breakdowns or the defence close-in and the Pumas were adept at exploiting the gap in the first channel from the ruck.
The Springboks were, frankly, being bullied and they even sought referee Steve Walsh’s attention, alleging eye-gouging and biting. Two Argentinean loose forwards, Leonardo Senatore and Pablo Matera, would later be cited for foul play, but the whistleman’s focus during the match seemed to be on all sorts of peripheral things rather than keeping the breakdown contest tidy and enforcing offsides lines.
The Pumas’ ill-discipline was eventually punished by Walsh, allowing Steyn to kick four second-half penalties that won the game.
Questions, though, will be asked over some of coach Heyneke Meyer’s decisions, such as leaving the struggling Pienaar on for the entire game or not giving the more physical Flip van der Merwe a longer run in the second row.
But it’s the failure of the Springboks to lift themselves – having spoken all week about how they expect the Pumas to bounce back ferociously – that is perhaps of most concern.
They will now travel to Australasia next weekend for their two Tests against the Wallabies and the All Blacks and they are not going to win those unless their pack rediscovers the fire they showed at the FNB Stadium.
The Springbok backline are not going to be able to win those Tests on their own; the forwards are going to have to do the gruntwork and lay the foundation.