The Springboks face the toughest challenge of their season so far against an impressive Samoan outfit in Pretoria on Saturday.
The Springboks face the toughest challenge of their season so far against an impressive Samoan outfit at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
Make no mistake, this is set to be massive clash. The history books do not paint an accurate picture of the relative strengths of these sides and Bok fans expecting a walkover are in for a surprise.
Indeed, the only past fixture between these teams worth mentioning is their last encounter, at the 2011 World Cup, when Samoa felt very hard done by after a narrow defeat in a bruising battle.
You can bet your bottom Rand that we'll see plenty more battered bodies on the Highveld this weekend as Samoa are one of the few sides in world rugby who can match the Boks for brute physicality.
And on pure form, there is little to choose between the 'finalists' of the quadrangular series: South Africa beat Italy 44-10, Samoa beat the Azzurri 39-10; The Boks won 30-17 against Scotland after Samoa's 27-17 victory a week earlier. But both of the Springboks' scores were inflated by tries in the dying minutes and the respective performances against the Scots suggest that Samoa have every right to feel confident this weekend.
Long gone are the days when the Boks could expect to dominate at the set piece against a Samoan side looking to feed of scraps and play an unstructured game. Now, as Heyneke Meyer and his team have been at pains to highlight this week, Samoa are a complete package and their scrummaging displays in both Durban and Nelspruit – especially against a tough Italian front row – indicate a tough afternoon for the hosts at scrum time, and area that Meyer highlighted at the start of the season as one of his major concerns.
As part of their plan to counter Samoa's power game, Boks have selected a somewhat unconventional second row featuring an extra bruiser – in the form of Flip van der Merwe. The South African coaching staff have also consistently spoken of how much they value territory, so expect no change in the tactic of using Morne Steyn's boot to kick for the corners where they can challenge at line-outs and generally try keep their opponents pinned back.
It's an approach that has long served South Africa but their refusal to use the ball in hand from deep has made them quite predictable. One can only wonder what the Boks would have done in similar situations to those that saw New Zealand score two brilliant long-range tries against France last week…
Accuracy will be the key for the Boks however they choose to use their possession as the Samoans have shown just how dangerous they are from broken play with a series of scintillating tries over the past fortnight.
Much of the media focus here this week has – understandably – been on the breakdown. Meyer was clearly very unhappy with the refereeing in the Scotland game and retorted to suggestions that a different loose trio could have done better with comments like “even if you have five opensides, if someone is lying on the ball, it's never coming out.”
The hosts will be pleased to hear that Frenchman Pascal GauzÃ¨re – who reffed their first game against Italy – will be the man in the middle on Saturday after an injury to Johnny Lacey necessitated changes to the match officials at Loftus.
The Boks do have the personnel to play exciting rugby and if the rucks are controlled strictly and both sides get quick ball on the hard, dry surface in Pretoria, we should be in for a cracking game.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Making sure of the result at Loftus – that's what Morne Steyn does, week in and week out…just ask the British and Irish Lions. In the rarefied high-altitude air, Steyn's boot will be South Africa's key weapon both from the tee and out of hand. The Boks' discipline has been outstanding and if the penalty count is on their side, you can expect to Steyn to keep the scoreboard ticking. But, as mentioned above, he must be accurate when kicking for territory and with his trademark bombs for Bryan Habana and Bjorn Basson to chase. Errors will be punished by big Samoan runners from deep.
For Samoa: The Islanders' development as a much more tactically astute team has corresponded with the emergence of Tusi Pisi as a top class fly-half. Having played for the Crusaders and Toulon before moving to Japan and then the Hurricanes, Pisi brings a calm head to the fiery Samoan backline. He has been in top form during this series and his decision making will go a long way to determining his side's fortunes on Saturday.
Head-to-head: The battle up front will be engaging in more ways that one. Toulouse prop Census Johnston was recently voted the best tighthead in the Top 14, where front rowers are held in very high esteem. His tussle with Tendai Mtawarira, who has been somewhat inconspicuous of late, will be one to watch, in the set pieces as well as in the tight-loose as both can be devastating ball carriers.
2011: South Africa won 13-5 in North Shore City
2007: South Africa won 59-7 in Parc des Princes
2007: South Africa won 35-8 in Johannesburg
2003: South Africa won 60-10 in Brisbane
2002: South Africa won 60-18 in Pretoria
1995: South Africa won 42-14 in Johannesburg
1995: South Africa won 60-8 in Johannesburg
Prediction: It won't a be stroll in the park by any means, but it's hard to ignore the fact that South Africa have never lost to Samoa. At altitude and with plenty of Bulls playing on home soil, we reckon the Boks should be able to get the job done. South Africa by six points.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (c) / Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 MornÃ© 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 JuandrÃ© 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 (c), 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Tusiata 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 Brando Vaaulu, 22 Seilala Mapusua, 23 Alafoti Faosiliva.
Date: Saturday, June 22
Kick-off: 17:15 local (16:15 BST, 15:15 GMT)