The Springboks ensured that they will go into the Castle Rugby Championship phase of the season in a confident mood after turning it on in all phases of play to smash Samoa 56-23 in the final Incoming Tours Series test at Loftus on Saturday evening.
The Boks scored eight tries to two in a game where, but for an initial period of a quarter of an hour, they were never challenged by a side that has lost by big scores against the South Africans most times they have played them but who had been impressive in the earlier matches of this series.
After the struggle against Scotland in Nelspruit last week, the talk during the build-up revolved around the Springboks’ need to bring back some attitude, physicality and intensity to their approach to the breakdowns, and also some accuracy in the quest both to secure quick ball for themselves and slow opposition ball down.
That they got all of those aspects right tells the full story of why they were leading 32-9 at halftime after perhaps the finest first 40 minutes of rugby produced by the Boks since they made a big early impression against England in the second test of that series in Johannesburg last June.
And there was also no coincidence that the marked improvement came at the same time as some crucial team changes had been made.
The Boks suffered in their quest to get across the gainline against Scotland last week because they lost big ball carrying blindside flanker Arno Botha early in the game and they lacked Willem Alberts’s bulky influence in the battle for collision and advantage line supremacy.
This time Alberts was present and he stood out like a beacon as one of the pillars around which the rest of the Boks swarmed across the gainline like a swarm of angry bees in that dominant first half.
But Alberts wasn’t the only addition that made all the difference. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer loves big ball carriers, and against Samoa he could afford to risk weakening the lineout.
So in came Flip van der Merwe for Juandre Kruger, and what a great game the Bulls lock, normally a No 4 but switched to No 5 for this game, had on his home field of Loftus.
With Eben Etzebeth standing next to him and contributing his usual physical omnipresence to the battle, the Bok physicality was formidable.
When you’re cleaning out the opposition at the breakdown with ease it makes it much easier to get quick ball, but having someone there to scavenge adds to the accuracy and clinical edge to the breakdown, and Francois Louw, back after being married last week, showed Meyer exactly what had been lacking last week.
Who should back him up of course remains a big debate, and that’s what last week showed us. For my money, Heinrich Brussow simply has to be in the squad.
But there is no denying that the better allrounder that is Louw is the first choice by some distance, and he showed us why on Saturday as he repeated his superb game at the same venue against Australia last September and capped his performance with a brace of tries.
Apart from facilitating a steady stream of quick possession, Louw also played his part early in the game in effecting a crucial turn-over or two as the Samoans pressed in the first 15 minutes.
DAZZLING LE ROUX
That was though the only period when the Samoans were in the game, and once the Boks had worn them down, with the ball coming back so quickly and cleanly that the Samoans were denied a chance to breathe, the platform was set up perfectly for the likes of JJ Engelbrecht, Willie le Roux and Bjorn Basson to wreak havoc out wide like they did in Durban against Italy and in the later stages last week.
Le Roux was particularly impressive with the way that he played a starring role in several of the Springbok first-half tries, his pace, anticipation and decision making enabling the Boks to sizzle in the strike-zone like they seldom have in recent years.
Whether or not the coach will back the Free Stater as his starting fullback when the tougher Rugby Championship matches against New Zealand and Australia come into view remains debatable, as Le Roux dropped an early kick when under no pressure.
It was a mistake that would be unacceptable for a fullback in a big pressured test against better opponents than the Boks were up against on Saturday.
However, if Meyer does intend to relegate Le Roux to impact sub he’s going to have a hard time trying to justify that after the way that Le Roux dazzled on attack against the Samoans.
Certainly the Boks have plenty of pace to burn out wide at the moment and when Louw is there in tandem with someone like Alberts, and the ball comes back quickly, the backline has the potential to challenge anyone.
Talking of Alberts, you can’t say that Meyer hasn’t spread his net in this series. Apart from all the new players who are strutting their stuff at the moment and making a full fist of their opportunities to establish themselves, the coach has also tried a few things – and at Loftus he moved Alberts to No 8 in the second half.
Patrick Lambie didn’t start any test as Meyer had intimated he would, but he did get his third run on Saturday, and then of course there was the second row rotation that worked out well for the Boks in Pretoria.
In the second half the Boks weren’t as flush as they were in the first, and in the third quarter the Samoans halted the massacre just a bit as they fought back with a try.
It was the ridiculous dangerous tackle from Alesana Tuilagi on Jean de Villiers that saw the Samoan flyer red carded in the 57th minute that effectively ended any chance that the Samoans could make anything of their fighting intent.
No sooner had Tuilagi left the field than the Boks went over for try No 5, with Bryan Habana grabbing his 50th with his second score of the match as Ruan Pienaar cleverly worked the blindside to put the Springbok record holder in. And then not long after that Morne Steyn, who was not his usual immaculate self with his goalkicking, made up for it by dropping him for a try.
But the Boks had looked like they were heading to a score of above 60 when they were so in control at halftime, and considering they were playing against a team reduced to 14 men 23 minutes of the second half, the fact they didn’t do that was a bit disappointing.
It would be churlish to carp too much on it though, for the first half was good enough to ensure that the South Africans will go the Rugby Championship feeling confident. They scored four first half tries in every way you can score tries, including one of those irrepressible driving mauls.
Apart from their bossing of the breakdowns, the Boks were also the masters of Samoa in the set-scrums, and it kept the hosts steady during the first part of the game where the Samoans carried the ball strongly.
The visitors were ahead 6-3 after 17 minutes but skipper De Villiers elected to squeeze the Samoans into the corner with two successive penalties and off the second Francois Louw broke off a maul and Le Roux drew two defenders to create the space for Habana’s first try.
Louw dotted down the driving maul try eight minutes later, and then came a fine try from Engelbrecht who weaved in and out after the ball had been spun down the line off turn-over ball (the Samoans were down to 14 men at the time after their tighthead prop Logoi’li Mulipola had been sinbinned) followed by one from Bjorn Basson on the halftime mark following more brilliance from Le Roux.
South Africa – Tries: Bryan Habana (2), Francois Louw (2), JJ Engelbrecht, Bjorn Basson, Morne Steyn, Trevor Nyakane. Conversions: Steyn (3), Pat Lambie (2). Penalties: Steyn (2).
Samoa – Tries: Filo Paulo, Junior Poluleuligaga. Conversions: James So'oialo, Paul Williams. Penalties: So'oialo (3).