The Springboks will be toasting Frans Steyn for his role in saving them from a first ever defeat to Argentina in The Rugby Championship clash in Mendoza on Saturday.
It was thanks to Steyn’s charge-down of an attempted Pumas kick and his chase down of the rolling ball that the Boks were able to draw level at 16-all with a quarter of an hour remaining of a match in which the hosts were the better team for most of the way.
Argentina were never headed in the game and although it was the South Africans who were pressing in the last minutes as the Pumas tried to slow the play down, it was Jean de Villiers’ team that should have been the more relieved when the end came with the scores still level. The Pumas were better than them in most aspects of play, and after this abjectly disappointing performance from the Boks it is now clearly time for the scrutiny on a coach who has perhaps been given more leeway than many of his predecessors were to be intensified.
Full marks to Argentina for raising their game in their first home match in the new competition, but after five matches in the new cycle it is time to start asking serious questions about the Boks and where they are going.
While the country is clearly willing him to succeed, it is becoming more evident with every game that without the forward dominance that the Bulls team he used to coach relied on for success, Heyneke Meyer’s side looks staid, dour and predictable.
The coach needs to put his own selections under scrutiny too, for it is laughable to say you won’t look at Heinrich Brussow, who is missed at a time when the Boks are struggling at the breakdowns and just aren’t getting any quick ball, because he gives away penalties. Not when you select Flip van der Merwe, who gives away a penalty within the first minute of running onto the field.
Meyer chose a big ball carrying back row in an effort to lift the physicality level, something that wasn’t what was lacking in Cape Town last week, but the Bok pack was dominated for most of the way so the selection change had little effect. The Pumas won two lineouts against the throw to the Boks’ one, they won the collisions, and the Bok high ball tactics made no impression on the Puma back three.
And with the forward platform of the previous week not there, it blew away the halo that had suddenly formed itself around the halfbacks, Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn. They were rightly lauded after Newlands, but when the going got tough in Mendoza they did not respond in a way that inspires confidence ahead of the tougher tests that lie ahead in this competition.
To put it simply, Hougaard isn’t equipped to do what Meyer wants him to do, which is to ape the Fourie du Preez style of play and accuracy in tactical kicking, and it doesn’t help that he is now starting to spend a quarter of every test match he plays on the wing. And Steyn doesn’t have the attacking presence to make those around him a thorn for the opposing defensive system.
The Argentinians were always going to be much improved in a home game, and from the outset it was clear that would be the case. Frans Steyn was presented with an early long range penalty attempt, from 54 metres, which he only just missed, and the Puma goalkicker Martin Rodriguez also failed with a kick at goal.
But from there the home team started to gain the ascendancy in the battle for possession, and with the Boks turning over early ball, something that had already been a concern the previous week, the tone for the match was set.
When Rodriguez landed his first penalty after 10 minutes it gave the Pumas a deserved lead, and that advantage was stretched to 10 points seven minutes later when centre Santiago Fernandez burst through the middle to score near the posts. It was an historic moment for Argentina as it was their first try in the new expanded southern hemisphere competition.
The Puma dominance was reflected in the early penalty count, with the Boks trailing 5-2 in that regard as the game neared the half hour mark, while the visitors’ failure to be coherent at the breakdowns impacted negatively on their attempts to gain the necessary momentum.
There was a slight change to the flow in the last 10 minutes before halftime, and although Steyn missed an easy penalty attempt on the half hour mark, he made up for it two minutes later to cut the deficit to seven points.
Rodriquez though quickly restored the 10 point advantage and they were full value for their 13-3 lead at the break.
Frans Steyn lined up another long attempt soon after the restart but pushed it away to the side. Eventually the good field position they enjoyed in the early parts of the second half did pay off though through a Morne Steyn penalty that brought the Boks back into range in the 48th minute.
But if that suggested the Pumas might be wilting it proved a false hope for Bok supporters, and although Rodriguez’s 50th minute penalty was to be the last Argentine contribution to the scoreboard, there just wasn’t enough in the last half hour from the Boks to suggest they deserved to win. The Steyn try was fortuitous, and so was the draw.
They have a lot of work to do, and a lot to think about, before the next leg of the Championship starts in Perth in two weeks time. Fortunately for South Africa, Australia haven’t been that flush in these past two matches either, but that should hardly be seen as a consolation.