It’s a big day in South Africa on Saturday as Soccer City hosts the inaugural Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day, a special tribute to the former president, who remains in a critical condition in a Pretoria hospital, where he’s been for the past two months for treatment of a recurrent lung infection.
The Springboks will take to the field following a Legends soccer match between teams from South Africa and Italy (11.00) and a friendly soccer international between Bafana Bafana and Burkina Faso (13.30) and will be determined to end the occasion on a high as they honour “Madiba”.
Given the cutthroat nature of the Rugby Championship, anything less than a full five log points would be considered a disappointment by the Springboks.
This viewpoint is not to discredit the Argentine, who have made significant strides in recent years, but rather an acknowledgement of the strength of the Wallabies and in particular, the defending champion All Blacks.
For the three leading sides in world rugby, beating the Pumas, currently ranked 10th, have always been non-negotiable, especially at home, and failing to secure a full house against Argentina would put a side on the back foot.
The Springboks again face the Pumas in back-to-back fixtures first up and will be determined to make the most of this favourable draw and get off to a fast start after making such a meal of it the first time round.
Their 2012 Rugby Championship campaign could hardly have gotten off to a worse start as the Springboks managed a mere six out of a possible 10 points following a three-try 27-6 win in their opening round clash in Cape Town and first ever 16-all draw in Mendoza.
They subsequently played catch up for the remainder of the tournament and ultimately finished third with just two wins. The only way for the Springboks to go in this year’s tournament is up, but it’s imperative that they lay down an early marker on Saturday and show that they’re no longer the also-rans of 2012.
As a collective, the bulk of the squad have a year of international experience to draw from, and Saturday’s run-on side boast a total of 485 caps compared to Argentina’s 387.
The likes of centre JJ Engelbrecht, fullback Willie le Roux and replacements Siya Kolisi and Jan Serfontein will be playing their first Rugby Championship Tests this weekend but form part of a fairly experienced group freshly boosted by the returns of World Cup-winning veterans Gurthrö Steenkamp and Fourie du Preez, who will make their Springbok comebacks off the bench.
Of course, the Pumas will be better for their debut season in the four-nation tournament last year, in which they proved competitive bar for the 15-54 home loss to the All Blacks.
They’ll have a better understanding of the pace and intensity required to compete against the SANZAR giants and will be confident of claiming their first ever Rugby Championship win in 2013 after the aforementioned draw with the Springboks and the narrow losses (19-23 and 19-25) to the Wallabies last year.
They’ll once again benefit from the knowledge of former World Cup-winning All Black coach Graham Henry and will possibly be aided by the new scrum laws.
The new crouch, bind, set scrum sequence could be the equaliser the Pumas have been missing, given that from a technical perspective, it suits the Argentine’s renowned Bajada scrum technique.
All Black forwards coach Mike Cron and Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore this week voiced their concerns over the effect the new scrum sequence could have on the game in Sydney, but it’s the traditional scrummaging powerhouses from South America who stand to gain the most from the rule change of the four nations.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Duane Vermeulen has been drafted straight into the starting XV after a long injury lay-off, so it will be interesting to gauge his fitness and see how he is used by Heyneke Meyer. The yin and yang of the Springbok pack, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts, have been lethal in unison and will gain more experience as a combination, while Adriaan Strauss will want to show why he should retain his starting berth. Ruan Pienaar and Willie le Roux are the two backs with the most to prove. The bench will play a major role with Bismarck du Plessis, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Fourie du Preez all set to be unleashed in the second half. The latter’s return has been the major talking point since Meyer’s 30-man squad announcement and all eyes will be on the veteran scrumhalf to see how he handles the step up to Test rugby after playing club rugby in Japan for the past two years.
For Argentina: Specialist tighthead Juan Figallo will shift to loose forward where he’ll have to fill the considerable boots of the retired Rodrigo Roncero and will come up against Springbok veteran Jannie du Plessis. Pablo Matera, Juan Martin Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore form a makeshift back row due to the injury-enforced absence of regular captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, while Nicolas Sanchez’s tactical-kicking will have to be on point. Marcelo Bosch’s defensive capabilities will be tested by the big South African centres and Juan Martin Hernandez will have a few tricks up his sleeve in the No.15 jersey.
Head to head: Undoubtedly the most anticipated positional battle is that of decorated Test veterans and opposing captains Jean de Villiers and Felipe Contepomi in midfield. Contepomi takes over the captaincy from the injured Lobbe and is set to play a major role in this year’s competition after missing last year’s inaugural Rugby Championship. The line-outs will be a tactical battle between Juandré Kruger and Patricio Albacete. Kruger has specifically been brought into the run-on side to nullify the vastly experienced Pumas kingpin in this all-important set-piece, the attacking platform of choice of both sides. Up front, experience battles youth as Tendai Mtawarira and Matias Diaz lock horns. At just 20, Diaz will get an opportunity to test himself against “The Beast” after impressing in last year’s IRB Junior World Championship.
2012: 16-all draw, Mendoza
2012: South Africa won 27-6, Cape Town
2008: South Africa won 63-9, Johannesburg
2007: South Africa won 37-13, Paris (World Cup semifinal)
2005: South Africa won 34-23, Buenos Aires
2004: South Africa won 39-7, Buenos Aires
2003: South Africa won 26-25, Port Elizabeth
2002: South Africa won 49-29, Springs
2000: South Africa won 37-33, Buenos Aires
Prediction: We can’t see South Africa losing this one on Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day, but the margin will be heavily dependent on the impact of the new scrum sequence. The Pumas will put up a fight, but the Springboks, boosted by “Madiba magic”, will come away with their first win at Soccer City and a full five points. Springboks by 21.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Fourie du Preez, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Argentina: 15 Juan Martin Hernandez, 14 Gonzalo Camacho, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Felipe Contepomi (captain), 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Martin Leguizamon, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Matias Diaz, 2 Eusebio Guinazu, 1 Juan Figallo.
Replacements: 16 Agustin Creevy, 17 Nahuel Lobo, 18 Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19 Mariano Galarza, 20 Julio Farias Cabello, 21 Tomas Cubelli, 22 Santiago Fernandez, 23 Horacio Agulla.
Date: Saturday, August 17
Venue: Soccer City, Soweto
Kick-off: 17.00 (15.00 GMT; 12.00 noon Argentina time)
Expected weather: Sunny and mild with a 20km/h west wind. A high of 20° and low of 7°.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), John Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)