The Springboks made sure they kept early pace with the All Blacks in the Castle Rugby Championships as they banked a full house of five log points in routing Argentina 73-13 as part of the Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day at FNB Stadium on Saturday.
The Kiwis had placed Jean de Villiers’ team under early pressure by smashing Australia and picking up five log points in Sydney earlier in the day.
Considering that the Wallabies are much tougher opponents than Argentina and were playing at home, it left the Boks with little choice but to respond in kind.
And boy, how they responded!
By the end of the 80 minutes they had scored nine tries against just a late consolation effort from Pumas captain Felipe Contepomi, who scored all his team’s points.
The Boks were accurate and effective once they got on top, but they owed their big win to an increasingly dominant forwards performance.
With hooker Adriaan Strauss playing out of his skin and getting almost everything spot on in every aspect of the game, and the Bok big men such as Willem Alberts, Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen driving through Argentina almost at will once they got on top, the bonus-point try was notched as early as the 52nd minute.
It was a confident way for the Boks to start their campaign, and full marks to the coaching team for getting the tactics spot on.
For instance, they must have spotted that the Pumas have a weakness in dealing with kicks put in behind the first line of defence, and this proved a profitable avenue of attack for them.
Not that it was always one-way traffic. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said beforehand that his team might be rusty after not having played together since the match against Samoa in June, a break of nearly two months, and he was right.
For the first 25 minutes both teams struggled to get going in a scrappy start dominated by mistakes and smothering defence.
Although the Pumas were in the game in the first quarter, they never really had much chance of asserting themselves as the dominance expected of them under the new scrum engagement laws wasn’t forthcoming.
And an early steal at the lineout from Etzebeth set the tone at the lineouts, where the Pumas were under constant pressure and were thus denied any platform to build anything off.
The stats just before halftime did show that the Pumas enjoyed more possession than the Boks over the first 40 minutes, but that was probably built around a series of pick-and-goes in the middle of the half that never really looked like getting anywhere.
The bottom line for the Pumas was that most of the possession they won was poor possession, and with the Boks more workmanlike than creative in the first half, plus rusty as Meyer said, it made for a rather unspectacular advertisement for the rugby part of the multi-sport occasion which had featured Bafana Bafana beating Burkina Faso 2-0 in the round-ball game.
At least up to that stage that was the case. It was to change most emphatically later on.
The Pumas weren’t helped by the injury to their most experienced forward, Patricio Albecete, who came off quite early in the game and left the visitors short of lineout options, and the Springboks systematically started taking control of a game in which they were never headed.
Morne Steyn put the South Africans ahead after five minutes with a penalty that was added to by a long-range effort three minutes later to make it 6-0.
Contepomi pulled three points back in the 17th minute as Argentina were rewarded for a rare visit deep into Bok territory, but a good turnover by Francois Louw secured South Africa another three pointer via the boot of Steyn two minutes later.
The first line break of what to that point was a static game came as late as the 25th minute, when Bok No 8 Vermeulen, who was solid in his first appearance on a rugby field since May, surged through a gap. But he couldn’t get his pass away to the man on his shoulder, JJ Engelbrecht.
It seem to be the cue though for the Boks to take control, and a series of lineouts were set up in the Argentina corner flag by penalties before eventually a cynical and desperate tap down from a pass from the base of a maul by the impressive Strauss from his opposite number, Eusebio Guinazu, saw referee Chris Pollock lose patience and he awarded a penalty try.
The try would have been scored had the Strauss pass found Ruan Pienaar, who was unmarked and just a few metres away from the line, so it was the right call.
But Pollock still took the right option of consulting the TMO, who confirmed what became a seven pointer and put the Boks into a handy 16-6 lead three minutes short of the half-hour mark.
And with Guinazu banished from the field for 10 minutes for his indiscretion, the lead was quickly stretched to 17 points as a chip kick from Willie le Roux from inside his own half was chased and gathered by Engelbrecht, who went over without a hand being laid on him.
A penalty from Steyn made the Bok first-half dominance complete as they took a 26-6 scoreline into the break.
BONUS POINT A FORMALITY
By then the Pumas looked like they were spitting the dummy, and the four-try bonus point for the Boks was already looking a formality.
Strauss capped his performance by dotting down off a driving maul five minutes into the half, and it was the rampaging presence of big Willem Alberts who did the same seven minutes later as the only remaining question-mark of the game, the bonus point, was erased.
Another good kick chase then netted skipper De Villiers a try, and the score was up to 45-6.
The Boks were confirming the worst nightmare for the Pumas, who found themselves staring at the probability of a similar defeat to the massacre scored by Peter de Villiers’ Boks in Johannesburg in 2008.
On that occasion the Boks won 63-9, with the Argentinians falling apart in the second half, and it happened again – with the end result being the biggest win ever for South Africa against their South American rivals.
A pivotal player in that win five years ago was Fourie du Preez, and the 2007 World Cup winner didn’t take long to make his mark on his return to Springbok rugby when he was introduced as a replacement with a quarter of the game remaining.
Du Preez quickly showed that he has lost none of his crisp long service and snappiness around the base, and a pinpoint pass contributed to De Villiers breaking through and setting up an attack that eventually saw the Japan-based player wriggle over for his 14th international try.
That brought up the half century, with the match only 62 minutes old.
With all the front-foot possession that they were enjoying, it had become an easy game for the Bok backs, and Bryan Habana was next to score as the floodgates remained open and the wing profited from a pinpoint pass and good decision from his old chum, Du Preez.
The scrumhalf certainly did underline in no uncertain terms why Meyer took the gamble of recalling him from Japan, and he has lost none of the class that made him a world champion.
With everything working so perfectly for the Boks, they will go to Mendoza with one thing they didn't have when they made the same trip 12 months ago - confidence, and lots of it!
South Africa - Tries: Penalty try, JJ Engelbrecht, Adriaan Strauss, Willem Alberts, Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Duane Vermeulen, Bismarck du Plessis. Conversions: Morne Steyn (8). Penalties: Steyn (4)
Argentina - Try: Felipe Contepomi. Conversion: Contepomi. Penalties: Contepomi (2).