Rugby Championship preview: Springboks to seal bonus-point win over Los Pumas and lift title

David Skippers

The Springboks will be determined to finish their Rugby Championship campaign on a high when they take on Los Pumas in the tournament’s final fixture in Durban on Saturday.

With the All Blacks and Wallabies facing off earlier in the day, Boks will know exactly what is needed for them to be crowned champions, although whatever the permutations might be by the time the match kicks off at Kings Park, they can expect a tough challenge from their South American opponents.

This year’s Rugby Championship has been arguably the best one since Argentina joined the competition in 2012 as each one of the competing nations have been in the race for honours throughout the tournament.

All four teams have been competitive from the outset and, unlike previous seasons, it has been difficult to predict the winners of the various encounters on matchdays. South Africa are level with New Zealand on 14 points on the table and trail their old foes by 13 net points on points’ difference, while Australia and Argentina have amassed 10 and nine points respectively.

Although the Boks and All Blacks are the favourites to win the tournament, this year’s championship has been characterised by upsets throughout and don’t be surprised if there’s another twist in the tale on the last matchday.

South Africa will be in a confident mood as they have won the last five matches against Argentina although they will underestimate the visitors at their peril as the Pumas will gain confidence from the fact that they registered there first ever victory over the Boks at the same venue in Durban in 2015.

Apart from that, Argentina have been the surprise package this year and their emergence as a genuine threat to the traditional southern hemisphere heavyweights in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa has been refreshing. Under the guidance of former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, Los Pumas have proven a tough nut to crack and after already beating the Wallabies and All Blacks this year, they would love nothing more than to add the Boks’ scalp to that impressive list.

Last time they met

These countries met just a week ago in Buenos Aires and although the Springboks claimed a 36-20 bonus-point victory, they had to work hard for the result. The Boks made a fine start and raced into a 22-6 half-time lead courtesy of a penalty try and further five-pointers from Jaden Hendrikse and Malcolm Marx with the Pumas’ only points coming via the boot of Emiliano Boffelli, who slotted two penalties. Argentina launched a fightback and narrowed the gap to two points in the 70th minute after they were also awarded a penalty try and Matias Moroni also crossed the whitewash. The Boks held their nerve in the game’s dying moments and sealed a deserved victory after Damian de Allende and Marx scored two late tries.

What they said

Springbok lock Lood de Jager is preparing himself for a tough challenge against the Pumas.

“Argentina have a chance to win the competition as well if Australia beat New Zealand, so their mind-set is that of a team that could make history by becoming the first Argentinean team to win the competition,” he said.

“It’s a big game. We haven’t won a full Rugby Championship tournament in a long time. But it’s a privilege to contest for the title, and it’s like a Rugby World Cup for us. As a child one simulates playing in a World Cup and Rugby Championship, so hopefully we can go out and do the country proud.

“Argentina are a tough team, and they play for the full 80 minutes. They are also proud of their nation and always play with passion. So, it is vital that we maintain our concentration for the entire match, and not have any soft moments.”

After beating the Wallabies and All Blacks, a win over the Boks would mean a full house of victories over their more accomplished opponents, although Pumas head coach Cheika opted not to comment when asked about the significance of such an achievement – for now.

“We can talk about that if it happens,” he said. “We’ve got objectives and goals, but that’s a good discussion to have once it’s done. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a huge challenge in front of us for it to happen.

“We’ve just got to get in there, get dirty and do our bit, and see where we end up, and we can talk about that stuff after.”

Players to watch

If the Boks want to seal a convincing win, their forwards have to hit their straps and their senior players must lead the way. Once again, Malcolm Marx, will be at the forefront of that onslaught as he has shown throughout the Rugby Championship that he is the world’s best player in his position and his presence in the Springbok starting line-up gives them an edge. Solid in the execution of his core duties, the 28-year-old is an X-factor player who also shines as an attacker and at the breakdown where he usually wins his fair share of turnovers.

Another one of the Springbok forwards who will have a crucial role in the grander scheme of things is behemoth second-row Lood de Jager. The 29-year-old has a high work-rate off the ball and has impressed throughout the Rugby Championship as a ball carrier and on defence. Apart from those attributes, he is the Boks’ lineout organiser and his prowess at the set-piece is a huge source of possession for his team. De Jager has won the most lineouts in the competition (19) and will be keen to add to that tally on Saturday.

The big talking point in the build-up to this Test is the selection of veteran utility back Frans Steyn as the Boks’ fly-half. He gets the nod after Handre Pollard and Damian Willemse were ruled out through injury and Elton Jantjies was left out “to protect his mental health”, according to Bok coach Jacques Nienaber. At the age of 35, Steyn has been around the block at Test level and gets his chance as the world champions’ chief playmaker after last starting in the number 10 jersey at Test level against Italy in Cape Town in June 2008! The two-time World Cup winner is renowned for his booming boot which will come in handy off the kicking tee and relieving pressure with long ranging touch finders. However, the main challenge will be to implement the Boks’ game-plan and if he manages to do that, the world champions will have half the battle won.

Argentina have made two changes to their starting line-up with Juan Imhoff and Matias Moroni coming in as replacements for Lucio Cinti and Matias Orlando on the left wing and outside centre respectively. Imhoff and Moroni bring plenty of experience to the Pumas’ game and both have reached great heights at Test level. When on song, Imhoff is one of the best finishers in the game and he will have fond memories of playing at Kings Park against South Africa as he scored a hat-trick of tries at the ground when Argentina claimed their first-ever triumph in this fixture in 2015. Meanwhile, Moroni came on as a second half replacement last week and made a telling impact with a superb try. More of that will be appreciated by Pumas fans.

Another player whose stocks have risen during the Rugby Championship is Pumas flanker Marcos Kremer. The 25-year-old is a good lineout option and solid with ball in hand but his biggest strength is his brilliant defensive work which allows for his flashier team-mates to shine on attack. Kremer has completed 66 tackles so far which is more than any other player in the competition and don’t be surprised if he is at the forefront of that facet of play again this weekend.

Main head-to-head

Both teams possess exciting players across the park but the duel between the two number eights, Jasper Wiese of South Africa and Argentina’s Pablo Matera, will be one of the highlights of this fixture. Wiese’s game has come on in leaps and bounds in 2022 and he has cemented his position as the Boks’ first choice number eight. Powerful on attack and defence, the Leicester Tiger knows he will have to be at his best in both departments if he wants to make an impact in this match. With the evergreen Duane Vermeulen set to feature off the bench, Wiese will be determined to take the fight to Argentina with a strong all-round performance.

Wiese faces a tough adversary in Matera, who is a genuine game-breaker and a key component in giving the Pumas much needed momentum with his strong ball carrying ability. Like Wiese, the 29-year-old’s excellence is not just restricted to his attacking prowess, however, as he too is an outstanding defender, although he holds an edge over his South African counterpart with his breakdown work which will also be crucial in this encounter. Both Wiese and Matera are important to their respective teams’ causes and a fascinating battle awaits between two players who are in superb form.

Prediction

Although the Boks will be favourites, they can expect another tough encounter from their opponents who, like their hosts, will be determined to finish their campaign on a high. Los Pumas will be well organised and should put in a competitive performance but the Boks will prove too strong in their backyard. Boffelli’s boot will keep the visitors in contention but Nienaber’s men need tries and will do enough to claim silverware. South Africa to win by seven points and secure a bonus point to win the title.

Previous results

2022: South Africa won 36-20 in Buenos Aires
2021: South Africa won 29-10 in Gqeberha
2021: South Africa won 32-12 in Gqeberha
2019: South Africa won 24-18 in Pretoria
2019: South Africa won 46-13 in Salta
2018: Argentina won 32-19 in Mendoza
2018: South Africa won 34-21 in Durban
2017: South Africa won 41-23 in Salta

The teams

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Duane Vermeulen, 21 Kwagga Smith, 22 Faf de Klerk, 23 Kurt-Lee Arendse

Argentina: 15 Juan Cruz Mallia, 14 Emiliano Boffelli, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Santiago Carreras, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Pablo Matera, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matias Alemanno, 3 Eduardo Bello, 2 Julian Montoya (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Replacements: 16 Augustin Creevy, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Joel Sclavi, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Pedro Rubiolo, 21 Tomas Cubeli, 22 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 23 Bautista Delguy

Date: Saturday, September 24
Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Kick-off: 17:05 local (16:05 BST, 15:05 GMT)
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Frank Murphy (Ireland), Andrea Piardi (Italy)
TMO: Chris Hart (New Zealand)

READ MORE: Expert Witness: Former Springbok hooker Schalk Brits previews the final round of the Rugby Championship