The Pumas nearly pulled off a winning upset that would have been well deserved. Tactically they were way superior to the Boks. Argentina won the physical battle because they were much smarter in how they went about it.
The Boks seemed to think going harder would be the answer this week. Ball carriers predictably lining up to smash through another Argentinian gang tackle ended up in a mugging. The bullies were bullied. The Bok coaches need to rethink their strategy.
Of course rugby is a physical contest, one that you need to win. But it’s your brains, as much as your brawn, that helps you win this battle within a battle. Heyneke Meyer made his approach clear through his selections. By picking Jacques Potgieter and Willem Alberts in his loosies, Meyer signalled that subtlety and finesse weren’t going to play a major part in this contest. they are sledgehammers rather than rapiers
Outmuscling the Pumas in their own back yard isn’t simply a matter of giving hulking ball carriers one-out passes to t-bone over top of tacklers. The Argentinians are too proud and tough for that to happen. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is a phenomenal leader. Like other skippers before him, he gets the Pumas to grow extra muscles.
What South Africa needed was some subtlety. Run these behemoths at the defensive line, make the tacklers sit on their heels, then pass the ball. This would take Argentina away from gang tackles and allow ball runners to dominate one on one contests rather than lose two on one battles!
Of course, to do this you need backs coming forward with the runners to force defenders into making decisions. An uncertain defender will be sluggish in the tackle.
Instead South Africa sent a flat line of forward runners promoting themselves to receive the ball and a deep line of backs to get the ball behind the forwards. This made it too obvious which group was getting the ball, and allowed defenders to smash the forward runners or slide off on second-man plays to cut down backs or, at worst, end up pushing the outside backs to the sideline where the Bok wingers were always confronted with 2-3 Argentinian defenders.
Every move in the game should involve hiding and holding players. Holding players run strong decoy lines to commit defenders and stop them sliding off. Hiding players look like they are not interested, run as if they aren’t getting the ball then strike like cheetahs (or, like springboks escaping cheetahs!)
Instead, the Boks gave too many cues away about who is to get the ball, and the Pumas read them like a Wilbur Smith novel. Until the Boks come up with an attacking formula that allows them to hit either the forwards or the backs (or both in the same play) without sending obvious cues to the opposing defenders, they’ll continue to struggle with slow ball, defences that are set and little continuity.
In contrast, the Pumas were smart, had a clear tactic to get gain line through driving line outs or through forward runners shifting the point of attack using linking passes. You could tell that Graham Henry is already advancing theircoaching.
The Boks obliged with the first tactic by happily kicking the ball out and giving the Pumas driving opportunities. The second tactic allowed the Argentinian ball carriers to get their shoulders slightly past their South African tacklers. At the very least, this created an impression within the Bok camp that they were being outmuscled. Heyneke Meyer’s comments after the game that they let their country down and that they have to go harder at the breakdown supports this perception.
Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who replaced the injured Hernandez, was a revelation. He took the line on and caused South Africa a lot of problems. Both Argentina’s half backs also had a significant influence. This is a team with ability, growing in confidence, who could be a threat far sooner than people think.