Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the third instalment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
I never thought I would say this, but an exhilarating opening weekend of the Aviva Premiership and the triumph of running rugby over structured monotony in the Currie Cup demolition of the Blue Bulls by Western Province were a much needed reminder that it is still possible to play the game with ball in hand and win by considerable margins. You can't compare Test rugby with club rugby, but the principle and certainly the intention remains.
There has only been one team in the Rugby Championship so far that has shown any real enterprise and confidence to back their skills and attack space when it is on. Even though they have beaten the Wallabies 27-19 and 22-0 to open their Rugby Championship campaign, I am sure All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will not be content with their accuracy thus far, even though they have looked extremely dangerous at times.
The game at Eden Park was a strange affair with both sides underperforming in areas where they have normally dominated in recent years. The Kiwi scrum was untidy and under pressure at times until Wyatt Crockett left the field and the Franks brothers joined forces in the second-half. On the other hand the Wallaby line-out that normally functions like clockwork under the leadership of Nathan Sharpe was a complete shambles on attack and the All Blacks competed brilliantly to take advantage. It was one of the main reasons the Wallabies could not build any momentum or secure field position in the match.
The All Blacks also uncharacteristically botched several try-scoring chances, but they have another full-strength side available for the clash against the Pumas in Wellington on Saturday and I am sure they will have a massive focus on finishing their hard earned opportunities with clinical precision. Although they will be missing Sonny Bill Williams, who probably played the best Test match of his career in my opinion (and he would have received even more praise in post-match reports if his team-mates were able to score from all the try-scoring opportunities) his replacement, Conrad Smith, is one of the toughest centres in world rugby and the type of character that will take the game to the Argentinians.
The Pumas have shown that they learn fast and even though the Springboks were hopeless in Mendoza, they gave themselves the best possible chance to achieve a memorable victory on home soil by disrupting the Springboks' speed of attack through targeting the breakdowns. That being said, I just cannot see the Pumas playing with the same confidence they showed in the quarter-finals of the World Cup last year against the eventual world champions where they started with a real bang and put the All Blacks under pressure for a considerable part of the game.
The return of Juan Martin Hernández from his groin strain may even prove to be a curse rather than a blessing, because the monotonous high ball tactic of the Pumas will most certainly be counterproductive against Israel Dagg and his compatriots in the All Black back-three. Holding on to possession will be worth a whole lot more to them than to hope for an odd mistake from the home back-three.
Although I expect the Pumas to improve over the course of the Championship, they will face an All Black side this weekend that is confident and with lots of competition across most positions, but far from satisfied with their performance so far. I cannot see them misfiring three weeks in a row in the accuracy department and a four-try bonus-point victory is surely on the cards and hopefully a more spectator friendly encounter.
The battle between the two teams in Perth this week is a completely different ball game with both players and management under considerable pressure, even though they are still in the enviable position of being number two and three in the world.
I see a disturbing trend developing in the communication from the Springbok management where they are talking up the strengths of the opposition to such a level that expectations are rock bottom and I think it may even start to impact the players' expectations. Statements from Heyneke Meyer that the Wallabies "have a very good pack" is a good example of ridiculous praise to lower the expectations of the media and public of South African dominance in the set-piece.
It is true that the current Wallabies can make history against the Springboks in Perth with a fifth successive triumph against South Africa and that the Boks have won only one out of their last seven encounters, but it is also the same Wallaby side that has not been able to score a single point in their last game against the All Blacks in 50 years. It is clear the Springbok management and SA media has more respect for the Aussie outfit at the moment than their own supporters.
Expectations were sky high when two SA sides made it through to the Super Rugby semi-finals and the abundance of especially young forwards showing immense promise in the competition. But now we are stuck with a young, inexperienced side peppered with youngsters on their first Australasian tour and expectations are well and truly low. True scholars of the game cannot see in their minds eye the Springboks performing much better than the Bulls performed against the Crusaders in Christchurch. We are stuck with Bulls players at 10 and 15 that are so one dimensional that the opposition coaches can go back to their opposition analysis pre-2007 to remind their new players what to expect.
But today is a better day for SA Rugby, there is a little bit of hope. Possibly Rassie Erasmus broke through the Bulls grip on proceedings and for the first time the selectors have shown some nous with the inclusions of Duane Vermeulen at eight and Francois Louw and Johan Goosen on the bench. Every single change was much needed and gives hope to supporters who have been calling for Francois Hougaard to move with his X-factor to the wing and Ruan Pienaar to control the game from the base. The most important change I still want to see is the Boks most talented back, Frans Steyn, at full-back where he can have a bigger impact on the game and make sides reconsider if they want to play a kicking game against South Africa.
The inclusion of Louw is a much-needed addition to the squad and the management deserves credit for a move that must have taken some determination to push through, given the political issue surrounding the inclusion of a foreign-based player. The bottom line is that apart from passing, catching and tackling, the breakdown is the event with the highest occurrence in the game of rugby. If you cannot control this area, you can't control the game and it is the area where the All Blacks are leading the way in international rugby. Both Vermeulen, although he still on the comeback from injury and Louw who is at the start of his season, are players that will play to the ball and will give the Boks the best possible chance to control the frantic pace with which the Wallabies would like to play the game.
As mentioned earlier about the Wallabies' lack of control in the Bledisloe Cup game, dominance of the line-out will be the other imperative area to dominate in Perth to secure victory - for the Springboks it is more about field position and for the Aussies it is more about continuity and attack. Andries Bekker played as badly in Mendoza as he was good in the first game at Newlands and the inclusion of Juandre Kruger is another good move and he will be the main cog in the machine that will need to function and dominate for the Springbok game plan to work. It is going to be an epic battle and will have a significant bearing on second place in the tournament, but on paper the more experienced Aussies must be favourites.
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.