At times South Africa have played as if their lives depended on it, not least the life of their coach Heyneke Meyer, whose heart rate looks to be off the charts every time the Boks threaten to score. But the intensity of the coach is being reflected by the team. South Africa are playing with a huge physical edge.
Morne Steyn is back at the top of his game and appears to be benefitting from the clarity of the game plan. His goal kicking has returned and although the tactical kicking at 9 and 10 hasn’t always been of the very highest order, the South African chasing game is so good that they make up for it. The biggest issue for South Africa is the matter of overseas based players. 10 of the current squad (Habana, Steyn, Kruger, Vermaak, Steenkamp, Kirchner, Pienaar, Louw, Ralapelle and du Preez for home internationals) play their club rugby on foreign fields.
The ‘French five’ shuttled back to France after the test in Argentina, turned out for their clubs and then hopped on a plane to Australia. There is only so long a body will put up with that sort of punishment and endurance may be an issue as they try to win for the first time at Eden Park in 76 years. Also, what will this selection policy do ultimately for domestic rugby in South Africa. If you can still be selected for the Boks whilst playing overseas, more and more players will take the euro, pound or yen and reduce the quality of the Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams.
For now South Africa have got away with it. Everyone in the South African team appears to know what role is expected of them. That mental security makes it much easier for the coach to blood young players like Lambie, Le Roux and Serfontein. The absolute clarity and confidence of the squad in the rugby they are playing is a big help to the more inexperienced members coming in.
We will get a better idea of just how deep set that confidence is this weekend. The All Blacks were just a wee bit off song last Saturday. When the weather came in against Argentina, there was an uncertainty about the game plan. New Zealand seemed unsure whether to play their style regardless of the conditions and trust in their skill level or to pursue more of a wet weather kicking game and push for field position. Their high error rate last Saturday won’t be acceptable to them, and knowing the people, the All Blacks will be firing at Eden Park this Saturday. The quality of Argentina’s scrum gave the Pumas defensive line speed last week. They were able to get up quickly and create problems for the All Blacks’ strike moves. Expect South Africa to come at them the same way.
Whilst New Zealand’s set piece attack was often upset by the Pumas, you could tell from the way their defence held and fought for each other that the attitude in the squad is good. Argentina switched their attacks on occasion and had the All Blacks scrambling for numbers, but they were able to stay alive and cover the threats. How a side reacts to defensive problems is often a good measure of how together they are. The All Blacks look very together. Dan Carter also looked to be coming back to his best. He stood a little flatter and was more explosive off the line. And Carter’s kicking caused the Puma’s back three a great many problems. The management is looking to continue to bring in young players and develop them with an experienced player on either side. The value of that policy was seen by Francis Saili’s reaction to his early error. I’m certain the experience and composure of Daniel and Conrad, either side of Francis, was key to Saiili recovering and putting in a solid debut performance.
This weekend will be a very good measure of how both sides have developed their young players over the previous 12 months and how much is left in the tank after months of gruelling rugby.