2018 Rugby Championships

South Africa vs Argentina

Saturday 18th August 2018

Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Kick-off: 17:05 local, 16:05 BST, 15:05 GMT
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Weather Prediction:

Argentina arrive in Durban full of hope that the turn-around in Jaguares fortunes will translate into the same kind of transformation in their national team. They have a “new” coach, Mario Ledesma, but he is only new in the job as Argentina’s head coach, almost all the players know him well, as he has been their head coach at the Jaguares since the end of the 2017 Super Rugby season.

The Argentinean hopes for a turn-around did not materialise in the mid-year international season, when the Jaguares, wearing Puma outfits seemed to take a step down from the standards they maintained in Super Rugby. They were poor, almost clueless at times, and it resulted in the resignation of the national coach, Daniel Hourcade.

Mario Ledesma has quickly been elevated from Jaguares to Puma coach without a moment’s hesitation by the Argentinean national board. The entire country’s hopes rest on his broad shoulders.

Ledesma achieved a remarkable change at the Jaguares. He brought their discipline under control, he focussed them into playing as a team rather than as a collection of individuals, and he introduced better playing disciplines and skill sets. He has been good for the Jaguares.

The players know Ledesma well, and he knows them well. This continuity might be a good thing in some respects, but it also highlights the single biggest problem that the Pumas face when selecting their team. The bulk of the team, 14 of the 15 starting the first Test against South Africa, play for the Jaguares in Super Rugby. This continuity between franchise and national team does not allow for the selection of the best players from a variety of teams. It does not allow for cross-pollination of ideas, it does not allow for competition for places in the national squad. It highlights the lack of depth in Argentinean rugby, compounded by the non-availability of numerous overseas based players.

Having the same coach as a team makes the step up to Test rugby also does not allow for new challenges, new intellectual input and fresh ideas. It is very much a continuation of the old. The relationships between individual players and the coach remain the same, the trust, the hesitations, the understanding or misunderstanding is all the same.

There is no new dynamic involved.

This weekend will provide a true test of the Jaguares to Puma evolution and whether the continuation of coaching regime is a good idea or not.

South Africa, on the other hand, have the benefit of selecting a team from across 4 Super Rugby franchises, a couple of Pro 14 teams, and a bunch of provincial unions. They also have the ability to bring back some of the senior players who ply their trade outside the country.

The Springboks are selected from a much deeper pool than is available to the Argentineans.

The Springboks are, theoretically, thus an amalgamation of the best of the best the country has to offer.

Based simply on the numbers of players from which Rassie Erasmus must make his initial selections versus the numbers available to Mario Ledesma, this game should be no contest.

But that would be to ignore the pride that infuses a player when he wears the national colours, the pride that often motivates a player to perform superhuman feats that would be beyond him when he is playing his normal game of rugby.

The Argentineans have previously shown that kind of pride as they have punched well above their weight in years past, even rising to third-place in the World Rugby ranking table for a while.

Can Mario Ledesma regenerate that pride, that focus, that motivation that was so clearly missing in the mid-year against Wales and Scotland? Can he rebuild Argentina?

South Africa are in a somewhat different position. They too have been busy rebuilding their team, their pride, and their confidence after a disastrous two years under the guidance of Allister Coetzee. The disaster, in point of fact, stretches back much further, to the Heyneke Meyer term in office, but that is a different story. Perhaps the Springboks’ job has been the more difficult as they have had to deal with the demanding expectations of the public and the media, and then the opprobrium of severely critical fans when things do not work quite as planned.

Yet, there have been very promising signs that the Springboks have turned around from the headlong slide into ignominy that was the mark of the Coetzee era.

Under Rassie Erasmus the Springboks have shown that they can play intelligent, focussed rugby, sticking to identifiable game plans and strategies, while allowing for the spark of individuality and excitement when the moment presents itself.

They have also shown a pride, a maturity, and commitment that has been invisible for the most part of the previous two years.

That pride, that commitment, and most especially the growing maturity was especially evident against Eddie Jones’ England in the first two Tests of the mid-year. In both Tests England started very fast, and rapidly ran up scores that would previously been enough to cause the fragile Springboks of ’16 and ’17 to implode.

The 2018 Springboks did nothing of the sort.

They sucked in the pressure, used it to focus themselves, and fought back. They played with an unflappable maturity that belied the rookie status of some of the players, and they won both those Tests, comfortably.

That is the Springbok team that will meet Argentina on Saturday in Durban.

There is a new-found confidence in the Springbok camp, something that has been missing for some years.

Match-Day 23

South Africa:

Rassie Erasmus has made some interesting changes to his team for this first Rugby Championships Test match. He has brought back Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw and Warren Whiteley after all four missed the mid-year Tests against England with injuries.

Two uncapped players, Damian Willemse and Marco van Staden are amongst the replacements and are set to make their Test debuts off the bench at Kings Park.

Whiteley makes his first appearance in a Springbok jersey in more than a year after he suffered a groin injury last June against France.

Hamstring trouble prevented Marx, from playing in any of the four games against Wales and England.

Etzebeth struggled with arm and back troubles but, like Marx and Whiteley, he has now recovered and is again ready for Test match rugby.

Erasmus has also shuffled his loose forward combination, playing two fetchers along with Whiteley at 8.

The second row pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit are reunited in the Springbok second-row, while the imposing Marx will pack down at hooker between Frans Malherbe and the experienced Tendai Mtawarira, who will run out in his 102nd Test for the Springboks.

In the backline, Makazole Mapimpi will start at right wing in the place of the injured Sbu Nkosi, with André Esterhuizen replaces the injured Damian de Allende, and will partner his Sharks team mate Lukhanyo Am in the midfield.

Willie le Roux remains at fullback, with Aphiwe Dyantyi on the other wing.

The bench features some real impact players, with Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, and Thomas du Toit offering a massive finishing front row that could easily start the Test if need be. Marco van Staden will be desperate for a chance to make his mark, as will the boy-wonder Damian Willemse.

Argentina:

Mario Ledesma has named Saracens tighthead Juan Figallo in the starting XV for the game against South Africa in Durban.

Figallo is the only non-Jaguares player in the squad and Ledesma has immediately put the prop into the line-up for the Rugby Championship encounter on Saturday.

He has not played for the national team since the 2015 World Cup and the 30-year-old will start alongside captain Agustin Creevy and loosehead Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, who has been shifted from the tighthead side of the scrum to accommodate Figallo, in the front-row.

Elsewhere, Ledesma has made a few alterations to the Jaguares that lost to the Lions in the Super Rugby quarter-finals with Matias Alemanno preferred to Tomas Lavanini, while Marcos Kremer will be at flanker instead of Tomas Lezana.

In the backline, Bautista Ezcurra starts at centre and Matias Moroni is shifted into the midfield alongside him, with Ramiro Moyano on the wing.

On the bench, Diego Fortuny, Santiago Garcia Botta and Santiago Medrano provide the front-row back-up while Martin Landajo, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and Juan Cruz Mallia will cover the backline.

Thoughts

Both teams will be testing the fitness of some of their starting players. The Argentineans will be looking at Juan Figallo who comes in after the Saracens off-season and has not played international rugby since 2015. A powerful and combatitive player, he may be a bit short of the fitness needed for Test rugby, especially in the front row of the scrum.

The Springboks are taking a chance with the fitness of both Eben Etzebeth and Francois Louw. Etzebeth has not played a game of rugby at all in 2018 as he has been recovering from surgery on his arm and then a back injury in the week before he was scheduled to make his first start of the season.

Whilst match-fitness might be an issue for Etzebeth, the period out of the game might just have been the best thing that could have happened to the big man. During 2016 and 2017 he carried a massive load, both physically for the Stormers and the Springboks, and mentally when he was tasked with captaining the Springboks after Whiteley’s injury. He did not shy away from the challenge of captaincy in much the same way as he does not shy away from the most massive of physical challenges. He took it upon himself to lead from the front, ramping up the physicality of his game to almost superhuman levels.

The massive collisions and constant impact took its inevitable toll, with an injury that required months of repair and rehabilitation.

The time out could well prove to be exactly what the Enforcer needed.

Francoise Louw is coming in, much like the Argentine’s Figallo, after the English off-season. He has had five weeks of pre-season training with his club, Bath, and will be tested in the hurly-burly of Test rugby. I would guess that Marco van Staden will be sent on as soon as the veteran starts to tire.

Whiteley and Marx return after coming back into rugby in the latter stages of Super Rugby, so their fitness is probably no problem.

Considering the two teams and the game they will need to play on Saturday, it is evident that the Pumas will need to match the Springboks up front if they want to have a chance of winning this game. In years past the Argentineans were famed for their scrumming prowess, but those days are over, and during the Super Season and the mid-year internationals the Jaguare/Puma pack spent much of their game time struggling to contain their opponents. Even when the Jaguares were on their seven-game winning streak, it was not built on the foundation of the strongest scrum and lineout in the competition. They led the way with penalties conceded in the scrums, and in scrum ball lost.

The Springbok tight forwards, bolstered by the return of Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth, offer a massive challenge to any pack in the world. To make matters worse for the opposition, there is a full international front row waiting on the bench, some of whom might even be rated as stronger than the men they will replace later in the game.

Whether the return of Figallo will suffice to change the fortunes of the Puma pack remains to be seen, but his fitness remains doubtful. Switching Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro to the other side of the scrum might also present problems. On paper, the Argentineans are going to struggle up front.

The Springbok lineout features two of the best lineout forwards in the business, although without Franco Mostert for this Test.

Etzebeth and du Toit, backed by Kolisi and Whiteley as alternative jumpers provide a challenge for anyone. It says much for Springbok locking depth that both RG Snyman and Franco Mostert are not in this week’s squad. The Argentinean threat will come from Alemanno and Petti, with Kremer and Matera the likely alternatives. I would not be surprised to see the Pumas make use of shortened lineouts to counter the heavyweight Springboks.

The loose-forward challenge for the ball on the ground is going to be interesting. The Springboks have gone for pace, with two fetchers backed by the wide-ranging Whiteley. This is an obvious attempt to nullify the Argentinean game plan of preying on the loose-ball and counterattacking in broken play. The Springbok bench offers no heavyweight ball carrier either, Marco van Staden is another quick fetcher. Of course, the Springboks could rearrange their pack, with Pieter-Steph du Toit switching to the blindside and Orie coming on to add more muscle if needed.

The ace-in-the-hole for the Springboks is the close-in carrying and midfield power, as well as over-the-ball skills, of Malcolm Marx and the added pace and mobility around the field of P-S du Toit. The presence of these two popping up in the faces of the Argentinean backs could be disruptive.

The Argentineans like to flood the breakdown and either slow the ball down or kill it completely, although they are in danger of bleeding penalties if they get on the wrong side of the referee. Augustin Creevy is their master-poacher and likes to get his hands on the ball as much as possible, even if only to slow it down while querying the referee if he is allowed to do it? The raised eyebrows and wide eyes while shrugging shoulders are a trademark. He knows how to “manage the referee” in the words of Sean Fitzpatrick. He is also the master of holding opponents in the ruck, preventing them from rolling away, and then appealing for the penalty.

Indications from the Springbok camp have been that they are aware of the Creevy threat, as well as the Puma strategy of flooding the breakdown, and will be looking for clinical and focussed cleanouts to keep the game flowing.

It will be interesting to see whether the Springboks flourish with the added pace in their loose trio.

Looking at the two sets of backs. Both teams feature influential flyhalves. Nicholas Sanchez is a great linking player with a quick eye for the opportunity and he likes to run wide supporting lines. He is less of a tactical player and more of an opportunist. In contrast Handré Pollard is a tactical general, but also brings the ability to take the ball flat and hard, running at the defence with power and pace. On defence Pollard is the more solid of the two as Sanchez tends to hang out of the tackle unless forced to commit. He often gives away high-tackle penalties. Sanchez has a shorter tactical kick and likes to put the ball in front of his chasers, taking a chance that a bobbling ball could bounce awkwardly for defenders. Pollard is better at the deeper tactical kicks for position and the wide high kicks for his wings to chase.

Pollard is the more accomplished player in most aspects of the game, although Sanchez offers a more accurate boot for goal kicks.

At scrumhalf South Africa appear to have the edge with Faf de Klerk’s irrepressible play on the ball and quick service to his support runners, while Bertranou is more of a journeyman service provider. Steady, but no tricks.

De Klerk’s box kicking has improved beyond measure since he headed overseas, and caused the English a lot of problems, especially with the springbok chasers have the pace t get to the ball.

The midfields are pretty evenly matched. South Africa feature a muscular crashball runner in Andre Esterhuizen, with the stepping and jinking of Lukhanyo Am outside him, while Moroni and Ezcurra are opportunistic counter-attackers and run great lines in broken play but are less adventurous or penetrative off the set-pieces.

The wings are also pretty evenly matched, with Aphiwe Dyantyi perhaps the best of the four at creating chances and using his feet to step his defenders, whilst Mapimpi is the quickest of them all.

At the back both Willie le Roux and Emiliano Boffelli bring solidity and great counter-attacking ability. Boffelli is the stronger ball carrier into the tackle, whilst le Roux creates opportunities for all those around him with superb handling and passing skills. Both are excellent under the high ball.

In essence, these are two teams that are fairly evenly matched in the back division, but the Springboks appear to have the edge up front. A fairly big edge at that.

Prediction

The Springboks are starting to look like a settled outfit, with a certain quiet confidence and sense of purpose emanating from their camp. There is none of the laager mentality that was found under both the Meyer and Coetzee coaching regimes. There is none of the defensive responses to questions, just a smile and quiet confidence. That bodes well for any team, especially a team that is still in the early days of rebuilding after a couple of seasons that can be rightly billed as disasters!

The Argentineans have had a torrid time of late, and have the problem of a lack of depth and a new coach. They will not go down without a fight. The question has to be whether they will make the step up from Super Rugby to Test rugby without adjustment problems? They struggled to do this earlier in the year.

It is the Springboks’ quiet confidence, with home ground advantage, and a well-balanced team, well prepared by all accounts, and ready for the game, that suggests the Springboks will win this game.

The Springboks, by 15 points.

Teams:

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Damian Willemse

Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Bautista Ezcurra, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Matias Alemanno, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Agustin Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Replacements: 16 Diego Fortuny, 17 Santiago Garcia Botta, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Tomas Lavanini, 20 Tomas Lezana, 21 Martin Landajo, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Juan Cruz Mallia