Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the fifth installment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
One of the main themes that has developed in the Rugby Championship so far is that the victorious team in the majority of the games really only managed to put the opposition to the sword in the last quarter of the encounter. This can be contributed to a number of factors and it is clear that South Africa and Argentina have definitely pulled the shortest straw in the closing stages of their last two games.
Argentina can proudly claim that they have not conceded a single try in the first halve in any of their matches so far and it is testament to their exceptional defensive team effort. As I have stated before, intensity and cohesion in defence is one of the best barometers of the internal motivation of a rugby team and the Pumas have shown bucketloads of guts in every game. Although individual defence comes down to technique and the innate desire to be an impenetrable force (which no coach can impart), team defence is a "coachable" area where many defensive coaches have made a name for themselves in the business.
Although there has been a considerable improvement in South Africa's defence in the last two games, the question that lingers is why they fall apart in the last 20 minutes. There has long been a question mark around the fitness of the South African team and the Argentinians have never been outstanding in that department either. The mixture of their kick-and-chase and forward ball-carrying game plan can be especially gruelling on a big pack of forwards and requires exceptional fitness to execute for 80 minutes. This is also applicable for the Pumas side that had played almost an unchanged pack of forwards the last four games. The newest GPS technology carried by players in key positions has shown the significant increase in the distance covered by a pack of forwards and the outside backs fixtures where the team's game plan comprises predominantly forward ball carrying and contestable high balls.
It is part of the great equation in the game of rugby to ensure a balance between speed and power, fitness and sheer bulk in the composition of a team. When a team starts to run out of gas, players start to take longer to get on their feet after contact and generally start to migrate to the rucks and the defensive line becomes either narrow or full of gaps. But I don't think individual fitness is the real issue, because there are ways to negate this through the effective utilisation of your bench and balance in your offensive strategy.
At the moment the All Blacks are just a much more balanced side and what they may lack in size in their pack, they make up with superior technique, explosiveness and speed. Although they have never really been under the cosh in any of their games so far (better accuracy from the Springbok's goal kickers could have caused an exception), the Wallabies have definitely been the side demonstrating the most character and composure in the closing stages of their games. The difference between the antipodean teams and the Boks and Pumas is the quality of their players on the bench and the effective utilisation of this potential game-changing agent by their respective managements.
Since the introduction of technical substitutions the dynamics of the game have changed considerably. In my early days I used to wait for that last 20 minutes to really hammer the nails into the coffin of an opponent that you have softened up systematically - and so it was the challenge of each team member to gradually overcome his opponent over the course of the 80 minutes battle. Today it is unfortunately a lost art.
Although the Springboks' forwards had an exceptionally good performance in Dunedin, they literally ran themselves into the ground and when the All Blacks put on fresh legs, the gearbox seized up and they could not shift to a higher gear to compete. It should also be said that Dean Greyling managed to be the most devastating impact player since Bob Skinstad's international breakthrough season in 1998, but unfortunately it was most devastating for his own team. Despite all his well-document infringements in the game, he is also an extremely poor scrummager on his own ball (mainly to the detriment of his tighthead) and his compulsive ill-discipline is a known weakness to the management.
Australia arrive in Pretoria with five consecutive wins under their belt against the South Africans (and I backed the Aussies for a win in Perth), but they will meet a different team at Loftus this Saturday. The conditions will be superb for the Aussie flyers like Digby Ioane and Dom Shipperley, but I think the loss of Steven Moore will leave a deep scar in a team that is already missing star players like Horwill, Genia, Cooper, O'Connor, Mitchell, Pocock, Timani, Palu and Kepu. Moore is the type of player you want in your side when you face a wounded Springbok at Loftus. But the silent death and great equaliser on the Highveld - altitude - will take its toll in the last quarter and will definitely favour the Boks when it matters. Moreover the almost messianic starting debut of Johan Goosen may just be the spark that can unlock the two veteran centres outside him (assuming Frans Steyn is fit - Ed.) - but I would not get my hopes up just yet that they will be able to run circles around the talented Wallaby backline. I do however believe it is the right move and if he can be joined by Pat Lambie at full-back soon, we may see a renaissance in South Africa's attacking game.
I foresee a very tightly contested match in La Plata where the fortunate Argentinian coach is able to field an unchanged starting line-up. We know they will fight hard, but the World Champions have their kingpin back in the form of Dan Carter and they will continue in their quest for perfection - although I suspect that playing against the Pumas in Argentina with their current defence is not going to be the ideal game to practise perfection. The All Blacks will most probably secure the inaugural Rugby Championship title this weekend, but we will all tip our hats to a Puma team that has thoroughly entertained us all with their passion and desire to improve.
Until next week, cheers!
Follow Cobus on Twitter: @Drieman3
Visagie earned 29 caps for his country and was the cornerstone of the Springbok team that reached the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. He earned the nickname "Drieman", or three man, because he played number 3 and scrummed like three men. He won four Currie Cups with Western Province and earned 43 Super 12 caps with the Stormers.
In 2003 Visagie moved to London to join Saracens for whom he played in 121 games and was voted in the Premiership Team of the Season for three consecutive years.