The greatest challenge to both South Africa and Argentina in their opening match of the Rugby Championship is to play without fear. Recent evidence suggests that such a leap may be beyond them. Both teams are utterly fearless in defence, but in possession they tend to travel down too many safe roads. They don’t crash and they don’t get very far.
South Africa have become way too predictable. Against England their pass to kick ratio was 3:1. When a team knows a kick is coming it is very easy to set the backfield and establish counter attacking opportunities.
Moreover the standard of South Africa’s kicking has deteriorated. It is a while since Morne Steyn has been at his best. And as he has struggled with his game, Steyn has dropped deeper and deeper, making it hard for his outside backs to function.
A big part of Steyn’s loss of form has to do with the absence of Fourie du Preez. The South African was the best kicking half back in the world. He would even drop off the number eight and kick-pass cross field to the wing. That threat opened up the space for Steyn to kick into.
But Derick Hougaard is nothing like as good a kicker as du Preez. He leans back on his box kicks and tends to sky them. The Bulls and South Africa have even developed an elongated ruck to try to give him more time.
But I have some sympathy for Hougaard. He is a running 9 and it is hard to attack from half back when the outside backs are coming forwards. The answer is to get Steyn to stand flatter. I had a similar conundrum with Paul Grayson at Northampton. But he is such a good ball player, that when I challenged Grayson to stand flatter, he did so to remarkable effect. Heyneke Meyer faces the same challenge.
Steyn has the courage and the coordination to run straight and use his hands. I would love to see Francois Steyn, jean de Villiers and the South African wings brought more into the game. The wings have great ability but they are chasing wings at the moment. Loyalty is a great part of South Africa’s current strength, but their wings must be getting tired of just playing a chasing game.
I would love to see Argentina open up a bit more and it will be fascinating to see whether Graham Henry has had any influence on that part of the game. They have a number of exciting runners developed through their sevens programme, but I wonder whether they will have the courage to use them.
Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, Gonzalez Camacho and Horacio Agulla form a vibrant back three if they are given the license. But how will Jaun Martin Hernandez perform on his return to big time international rugby. He was a great footballer but we haven’t seen a lot of him in recent years.
Argentina were hugely competitive in the first half of our World Cup quarter final. They have one of the best defences in world rugby. But defence can only take you so far. I hope that Hernandez is given the same license to play that Dan Carter enjoys with the All Blacks. But I suspect a safety first approach is more likely.
The Boks and the Pumas are likely to grind teams down. That won’t be enough to win the Championship. Maybe they will prove me wrong. I hope so, because both teams have the players to do so much more.