South Africa kicked off The Rugby Championship campaign with a solid, workmanlike 27-6 victory over newcomers Argentina at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday.
But while the Springboks eventually cruised to victory with some ease, and gave Los Pumas a rude welcoming into the Southern Hemisphere competition, they failed to get a bonus point, which could be crucial as the competition runs its course.
In a game that was rather one-sided and where there was never a thought of an upset, the Boks turned down the kick at goal almost a dozen times, but a lack of variety in the attack and some poor execution at the lineout robbed them of a fourth try that would have been expected of the level of dominance they had in the game. As one cynic put it at the end of the game, perhaps Newlands has a curse of denying the home team bonus points in big games these days…
It was precisely this point that will have Bok supporters concerned. While Heyneke Meyer still needs to mould his attacking platform, there will seldom be times in test rugby when an international side is presented as many opportunities close to the line, and fails to take them.
If that seems a bit harsh, a simple question whether Rugby Championship rivals New Zealand and Australia would have wasted so many opportunities in the same area might answer that, and while the win was non-negotiable, the Boks wasted a chance to put the Pumas away in a style that would have sounded a warning to their tournament rivals.
However, as the coaches will tell you, a win is a win, but after a solid first half, a solitary try in the second was hardly the reward that Meyer and his coaching staff would have been looking for. Still, in terms of the bigger picture, it allows the Boks to build some momentum before a tougher fixture next week against the same opposition in Mendoza.
But while the bonus point will be debated at length, there were other aspects that were pleasing. For one, the defence looked solid and players looked a lot more comfortable in their roles under John McFarland’s regime. To be fair, they weren’t tested in the same manner as the All Blacks will test them, but they were more than solid, and tackled aggressively in the process.
Then there was the performance of Morne Steyn and Francois Hougaard. Both were under pressure going into this game to perform and have been widely criticised for their play. While Steyn slotted five out of five kicks, it was his overall game, operating on confidence and his willingness to spread the ball wide that made a crucial difference. His critics may continue to dislike him, but at Newlands Steyn not only passed Butch James’s mark as the most-capped flyhalf, but also reminded the rest of the country why he still remains a force at international level.
Hougaard was back to his best. The halfback was more self-assured in his role at the back of the scrum, and added a few sniping breaks to his repertoire to cap a good evening. His confidence grew when shifted to the wing when Ruan Pienaar came on, and he ended the game on a high.
There were also good performances for a number of Boks, not the least Marcell Coetzee and Zane Kirchner, while Bryan Habana showed his class with a beauty of a try.
If, other than the bonus point, there was any concern, it has to be with injuries. Bismarck du Plessis was stretchered off after just five minutes with what looked like a knee injury, and Habana limped off later in the game. Meyer will be keenly hoping that the injuries aren’t too serious ahead of the tough trip to South America.
The Boks will have to look at their execution of the rolling maul, which never seemed to get off the ground in the second half. Coupled with that, they lost possession 16 times -- eight of those at the ruck and four in the Argentinean 22. While the Pumas must be given credit for spoiling the Bok attack, the home side will not be happy with those figures.
The Pumas marked their start to the competition with a solid opening minutes, but it was always going to be an uphill struggle, especially after a mistake in their own 22 led to the opening try as Steyn put Kirchner over after breaking through two tackles at close range.
Another Steyn penalty stretched the home side's lead and just before the half-hour a penalty was pumped into the corner for the Boks to launch their maul. This time it did work well, and it was an excited Coetzee who crashed over to give them a 20-3 lead.
Juan Martin Hernandez reduced it to 20-6 at the break, but killed off any chance of his side coming back into the game when he missed three easy penalty shots early in the second half. At that moment, the contest was over and it was just a matter of how big the scoreline would be.
A clinical cross-kick from Steyn reached Habana as the winger beat Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino in the air to score the third try, but with the clock running out, the Boks were presented with several opportunities in the Argentinean 22 and couldn’t get over the line for the bonus point.
The Boks will rue this as a missed opportunity but still believe they are moving in the right direction. A similar win next week in Mendoza will lay the platform for their bigger tests in the competition. And Meyer will remind them they cannot miss an opportunity like this again.