Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the fourth instalment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
As the Springboks' hard-earned first-half lead slipped through their fingers in Perth last week, I am not sure if I was more unsettled by the disturbing sight of Heyneke Meyer shouting into the defenceless walkie talkie like a man possessed or the unexplainable soft defence of the majority of the Springbok side and, most critically, their midfield.
To be honest, it's a real killer to predict games against your countrymen, including players and coaches you know, but significant elements of the strategic thinking shown so far cannot be defended by even the most patriotic fan at this stage.
I believe that the intensity of the defensive effort of a team is the most accurate measure of where a team and individual players are with regards to their motivation and team spirit and if you compare the Springboks' display with the stonewall the Argentineans put up against the superior offensive artillery of the All Blacks, you have to question either their fitness or confidence at deeper levels. The truth is, however, that although they attacked with confidence in the first half, the defence was soft from the start, which may indicate either the nature or the lack of application of the new defensive system which is definitely not as aggressive as in the past.
In Wellington the weather definitely played into the Pumas' hands and although the adverse weather conditions did not catch the New Zealanders off guard, it definitely did not suit their style and game plan. I have been on a three-week tour playing five games in every major province in Argentina during the winter months and it is not a million miles away from a freezing and blustery day in New Zealand and is part of the reason why the Pumas were able to produce an exceptional performance with their restricted game plan.
But it is difficult to pin down this All Black side in their own half because they are continuing their upward trajectory in the quality and consistency of possession from their line-outs. This has been a standout feature for me from the team since Steve Hansen took over the reins. It is one of the major reasons why they have been able to remain in control of their games throughout this season. Although the Argentineans did well in the possession they secured from line-outs and definitely performed better than the Wallaby pack, they were extremely na´ve with the way they stubbornly stuck to the failed tactic of driving every line-out.
As I mentioned before (and I challenge anyone to do their research on this), I would not consider driving line-out possession as a major part of my strategy outside of the usual 22meter area, before considering who the referee will be. Unless the referee controls the way the opposition try to slide past the sides of the driving maul to disrupt it, you have no chance of putting together an effective and constructive play and you are just wasting valuable possession and negating the extra space your backline had available to attack from in the first place. In the past I would have said that this is the area where South Africa would need to capitalise on to build a platform to attack the All Blacks and also disrupt possession, but the status quo would suggest that this would be a tough assignment.
Whilst the drive can be a major force for the Argentineans to deploy against the fragile Wallaby pack, they would be well advised to fall back on plan B if the referee does not assist them in forcing the Aussies to join the driving mauls from the back (through the gate) and ensure they recycle quickly if they end up on the sides of the maul. Nigel Owens refereed this well and the Wallabies were penalised twice.
The Kiwis' error rate continued to be very high although it is inevitable when you play against an extremely spirited and combative defence like the Pumas. The Argentineans also showed that the most important reason why South Africa needs a fetcher is to break the continuity of the All Black attack. Francois Louw's inclusion in the starting line-up is a move in the right direction, but you feel the Springboks will probably need three or more fetchers to compete against the All Blacks.
Heyneke's admission this week that Louw's inclusion is because the All Blacks "are good on the ground", only confirms the reality (and disillusionment and frustration of the fans). The All Blacks are dominating because they are the best at the breakdown, not just Richie McCaw or their loose forwards, but their entire team, and one player alone will not make the difference for the Boks. It is a coachable area and one that needs to improve across all South African teams and age groups (it was a major weakness of the U20 world champions as well).
When the Springboks defended at their best in the past they focused on very quick line speed, but to generate that speed with an entire defensive line, you need all the players on their feet, spaced appropriately and ready to press. When teams are able to put together phases and get quick ruck ball, any team will struggle, but South Africa is even more vulnerable and it is no secret in international rugby that after multiple phases, the Springboks' defensive line becomes a sieve and they can't control games.
To compound the control issues, the Springbok line-out has lost its potency on opposition ball and combined with the fact that they have not employed a specialist openside, they have lacked the turnover ball they used to thrive upon in the heydays when Matfield dominated and Schalk Burger or Heinrich Brussow ruled the rucks.
Speaking of control, the loss of Will Genia for the Wallabies is a heart breaker. The man that has been so instrumental in guiding the Wallabies and Reds to victory ranks probably as one of the greatest individual losses any team in the Championship can suffer. He has made the position his own the last four years and the result is that whoever they select to replace him will lack the experience to control the game (and Quade Cooper) at international level.
As predicted, the Springboks' lack of experience also played a major role in losing their grip on the game in the latter stages. South Africa have had the ability during the periods before the previous two World Cups to field of the most explosive and impactful benches in the international game and were able to close out games with players like Danie Rossouw, Bismarck du Plessis etc. This weekend the inexperienced bench will be up against the master closer, Piri Weepu and his very dynamic bench in the business end of the match and we can expect him to close out the game with finesse - if there is still anything to play for at that stage of the game.
With Morne Steyn and Zane Kirchner selected again at 10 and 15 we can expect more of the same from the Boks and the result will be no different. The Wallabies are sadly without their leader and maestro at 9 and it may well be the weekend when the fired up Pumas get the scent of a wounded Wallaby...and believe they can bring it down.
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.