Captain Jean de Villiers praised “Madiba Magic” for once again inspiring the Springboks as they registered a record-breaking 73-13 annihilation of Argentina in their opening Rugby Championship game at FNB Stadium on Saturday.
The Springboks returned to Soweto to be part of Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day to honour the unwell Father of the Nation. The tremendous atmosphere undoubtedly inspired them as they played in front of an audience that was far more representative of the demographics of the country than usual, thanks to Bafana Bafana playing before them in a 2-0 victory over Burkina Faso.
“The atmosphere was fantastic and we definitely enjoyed it. Today was about more than just rugby and sport, it was about the whole of South Africa, uniting the nation and celebrating someone who did that so well. The Madiba Magic worked for us again,” De Villiers said.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer also tapped into the occasion in motivating his team.
“The team talk was simple: I told them it was a special occasion and they should produce a big performance to make Madiba proud, and also to show a lot of soccer supporters who haven’t seen us play before what we can do,” Meyer said after the game. “It was one of those days when everything went right, what stood out was how clinical we were and we built an innings well.”
But the biggest victory in the history of the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship didn’t just happen thanks to everything coming together magically day-of. Meyer is renowned as a tactician and strategist and plenty of homework has gone into this year’s Sanzar tournament, with the coach pointing out how much more time he has had to prepare this time around.
The attention to detail was most obvious in the scrum laws, where a new engagement sequence was being used for the first time. Far from the new laws hurting the Springbok forwards, as some quarters in Australia have suggested, it seems South Africa, under the astute guidance of former French prop Pieter de Villiers, might well be pioneers in this new era of scrummaging. The highly respected Pumas scrum was dominated throughout and they even conceded a try from a tighthead late in the second half.
As Meyer pointed out, the entire coaching team deserved credit for the impressive performance. Meyer has made it his mission to fix the Springboks’ breakdown woes, the main cause of the controversial quarterfinal exit from the 2011 World Cup, and the acquisition of Scottish breakdown expert Richie Gray has clearly paid dividends as South Africa were far more efficient in the rucks than when they last played Argentina and were held to a messy 16-16 draw. Four of the nine Springbok tries came from rolling mauls, the speciality of forward coach Johan van Graan, while the lineout was imperious and the defence excellent under John McFarland. The backs, under the guidance of Ricardo Loubscher, played with an air of adventure and intent that has not always been apparent.
Meyer is a strong proponent of laying a solid platform in a Test, building pressure, and the Springboks eased into Saturday’s match with three penalties in the first quarter from Morne Steyn, all from a long way out. The in-form flyhalf would go on to miss just one of his 13 kicks at goal as he netted 28 points – the third most in a Sanzar Test – and he also distributed slickly, a lovely inside pass for Duane Vermeulen’s try and the counter-attack he sparked that led to JJ Engelbrecht’s touchdown shortly before half-time being the highlights.
It was Vermeulen’s break on the half-hour that led to the Springboks’ opening try, the eighthman making an impressive return to top-flight rugby after a knee injury. After several penalties, and seeing several rolling mauls pulled down, referee Chris Pollock, in conjunction with the TMO, had little choice but to award a penalty try and a yellow card after Pumas hooker Eusebio Guinazu deliberately slapped down a pass to prevent Ruan Pienaar from scoring a try in an overlap.
Engelbrecht’s try, after Steyn’s counter-attack and a deft chip by Willie le Roux, was the Springboks’ second, but they proceeded to run riot in the second half as seven further tries were scored to break the previous Sanzar record of eight (scored by South Africa against Australia at Loftus Versfeld in 1997).
The massive victory had its foundation in the ability of ferocious ball-carriers like Eben Etzebeth, Willem Alberts, Vermeulen and Adriaan Strauss to smash their way over the advantage line from the steady supply of front-foot balls they were allowed to enjoy by the Springboks’ dominance in the scrums and lineouts.
Apart from the magnificent performance of the pack, Meyer will also have to mull over selection because alongside as the starting XV played, there were some performances off the bench that were equally compelling.
What wonderful depth the Springbok coach has at his disposal when Strauss – named man of the match – can be replaced by the best hooker in the world in Bismarck du Plessis, while the two substitute props, Gurthro Steenkamp and Coenie Oosthuizen, seamlessly continued the great work of Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis.
While Etzebeth stole the show with his rampaging display, Juandre Kruger was superb in the lineouts and the Springboks don’t lose much when Flip van der Merwe enters the fray. Siya Kolisi was all energy when he came on in the 65th minute, while Pat Lambie and Jan Serfontein both made telling runs that led to tries in their short cameos.
But it was the 25-minute display by substitute scrumhalf Fourie du Preez that had most tongues wagging. It’s a great pity that his Japanese club, Suntory Sungoliath, will only allow him to play in the Springboks’ home fixtures, because the 2007 World Cup hero oozed class and he also seems to get the best out of starting halfback Pienaar.
“I’m very happy with both the scrumhalves. That was Ruan’s best performance since I started coaching him, while Fourie showed he still has a lot of speed, he was brilliant and he still managed to pick up the tempo even more. I think he brought out the best in Ruan, and Jano Vermaak and Piet van Zyl must step up now too.
“One of our really strong points was our unbelievable bench. Usually things become loose when you bring on a lot of replacements, but the subs were awesome today. I was even able to take my captain off with 25 minutes left,” Meyer said.
While 52,000 people at the FNB Stadium were treated to a wonderful main show on a great day, the scary thing is the Springboks could well have won by more. In the first half especially, their backs fluffed chances due to poor handling and a lack of cohesion.
“We still didn’t use all our opportunities, we created a couple that we didn’t capitalise on. And to put everything in perspective, we were playing against a team that had two yellow cards and we scored an intercept try,” De Villiers admitted.
“We expect a totally different beast in Mendoza, they’ll be hurting. But we need to enjoy this win, days like this don’t come along very often, and we have some confidence to build on.”
We will have to wait until the Springboks have played a couple more games in this tournament before we have enough evidence for a final verdict on their ability to unseat the world champion All Blacks, who ensured a torrid debut for Ewen McKenzie as Wallabies coach as they thumped Australia 47-29 in Sydney.
It was a very poor night for the Pumas, who were also disrupted by losing two key players in lock Patricio Albacete and fullback Juan Martin Hernandez in the first half. How much of that was down to the Springboks’ brilliance is difficult to quantify. But the portents are good for a much stronger South African challenge in this year’s Rugby Championship.