Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from Argentina v South Africa as sluggish Springboks fail to fire

James While

Following a 36-20 victory for South Africa over Argentina in their Rugby Championship clash, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Buenos Aires.

The top line

In a penalty ridden game that lacked intensity, continuity and attraction in the first half, yet sprung into life in the second, the Springboks produced a performance of basic simplicity to dispose of the star side of the season, Argentina.

Two first half tries from Jaden Hendrikse and Malcolm Marx saw the visitors go into half-time with a 22-6 lead; a blessing, considering the remarkable turnaround Los Pumas displayed as they put in a completely different performance in a second half. They were comfortably the better side after the break, as Tomas Cubelli inspired a remarkable comeback.

A try from Matias Moroni and a penalty try saw the hosts claw their way back to within two points at 22-20 with seven minutes to go, but Damian de Allende and Marx stopped the rot as they crashed over for two short range tries.

It was a remarkably scrappy display by the world champions that saw South Africa hardly throw the ball out past their centres, but with such precision from their lineout and driving maul, they would argue that they simply play to their strengths.

Tonight, their strengths were just about good enough.

Argentinian indiscipline

Referee James Doleman was so tested by Los Pumas’ sheer naivety around the contact area and breakdown in the first half that we saw an incredible 12 penalties delivered from a whistle that might very well need replacing at the end of the Test match. Was he pedantic? Not in the slightest. He was accurate, empathetic and tolerant, but the propensity of Argentina to lie lazily off their feet at ruck time or to drift offside in defence was quite remarkable at times in those opening 40 minutes.

They played half of the first period with 14 men on the pitch, an uphill task against any side, but doubly so against a team as direct as South Africa. Time and time again, tacklers failed to roll away – nine times within the first 30 minutes. They were absolute coach killers of dull and lazy transgressions and the sheer repetition of the same obvious offence cost them any form of momentum or field position in that first half.

Their second half was a remarkable turnaround, but this was a Test lost in the first by stupidity, sluggish defending and naïve transgression.

South African concerns

Whilst the Springbok supporters will always talk up their side, any of them happy with this performance are simply deluding themselves. Sure, they did enough, they remained legal and they stayed direct enough to close off the game. But their backline lacked any form of pace in midfield (Damian Willemse aside) and still the continued inability to pass left to right in their centres.

For all De Allende’s solidity and defensive skill, his run down the tramline in the first half could have been timed with a calendar and showed just how limited his attacking play is. It isn’t enough just to sit on leads in the modern game and South Africa need to sort out the precision and pace in their attack to do justice to the amount of possession and territory their forwards provide.

Whilst there will be big ticks in defence, breakdown work and lineout, their scrummage came under a lot of pressure, with even the great Frans Malherbe coming off second best as he rather unusually conceded a couple of penalties under pressure.

When the bomb squad came on, they were more of a damp squib, with Thomas Gallo giving Trevor Nyakane a torrid time in the second half. There will also be a concern over the 21 penalties and two yellow cards conceded – that simply isn’t the South African way but they cannot complain about any decision from the excellent Doleman.

There’s a lot of thinking to do for the Boks. It’s not about squeezing wins now, it’s about doing it in a year’s time, against some very impressive northern hemisphere sides with a lot of firepower. In short, there’s still a lot to do to get back to their best.

Argentinian revival

As Agustin Creevy ran on to win his 95th cap and to become Argentina’s most capped player, he ran into a team that had transformed their play from first half dullards to second half giants.

At the centre of this was the introduction of Cubelli, who added incredible pace off the base at ruck time, with Santiago Carreras and Pablo Matera alternating at 10 – the big flank taking the direct route and the impish pivot creating some marvellous touches looping around as the second receiver.

With Emiliano Boffelli bossing the aerial battle, only brilliant Springbok defence and superbly timed and incredibly accurate jackaling from their back-row kept the Argentine improvement down to the two scores.

When Los Pumas play well, the interplay loop work of Matera and the half-backs, combined with the inside switch passing is a joy to behold. Their pack stood up well once again with Marcos Kremer showing he’s one of the best blindsides in the world as he once more put in a massive shift.

But the simple truth is that you cannot start a game as cold as they did today against the top sides. If they can capture the brim and brio that they show for 40 minutes of every Test and convert that into 80-minute displays, they are as good as any side in the world, and it’ll be that consistency that Michael Cheika will have at the forefront of this mind in the lead up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Implications

A bonus try win for the Springboks sees them tying for first place on the Rugby Championship log at the end of Round Five, level on 14 points with New Zealand but with the All Blacks having a superior points difference. However, in a week’s time, they have the relatively easier tie, hosting Los Pumas, whilst the All Blacks again face Australia, a side they struggled to put away on Thursday, had it not been for the rather controversial call by Mathieu Raynal at the end of the match.

However, with a 14-point deficit separating them from New Zealand at the top of the table, they will know that next weekend they have to score and score big. Expect to see Faf de Klerk recalled to start at scrum-half with the possibility of Andre Esterhuizen coming in at 12 to replace De Allende. For Los Pumas, the task is simple – start hot. Given their skills with ball in hand, playing hot for 80 minutes will put them in positions to beat any team. On the basis of today, they have no injury concerns for the return fixture and we can expect to see a massive response from a proud nation that are very much on an upcurve of form.

READ MORE: Springboks made to graft for bonus-point victory over Pumas