Two penalties in the last eight minutes of play saved the Springboks from being the victims of what would have been one of the greatest comebacks in history as they snuck past Argentina 22-17 in a closely fought Castle Lager Rugby Championship match in Mendoza on Saturday.
Just about everyone, including the Boks, had the expectation that the Pumas would be a lot better this week than they were in losing by 60 points in Johannesburg the previous week. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
But few would have expected them to be as improved as they were. Frankly, had the Pumas prevailed, it would have been no less than they deserved from a contest that they shaded in several areas.
Whereas last week it was nine tries to one for the Springboks, seven days later it was the Pumas who crossed the line twice with Jean de Villiers’s team getting just a solitary first-half try from wing Bjorn Basson.
The hosts led 17-13 at halftime and deserved that lead after an energetic 40 minutes that was a far cry from the timid rugby they produced at the FNB Stadium seven days earlier.
Clearly the Pumas were far more comfortable being in front of their countrymen than they were playing away, and all the anticipated emotion was there as they flew into the fray like men possessed.
They also played some smart rugby at times, with their short passing game frequently putting players in space and the Bok scramble defence did well to limit the damage.
The stand-outs for the Pumas were their back-row, who were all over the place and extremely aggressive and forceful at the breakdowns.
That contributed to the Boks being under constant pressure, and it showed up some weaknesses, such as Ruan Pienaar’s pedestrian clearing of the rucks.
The Pumas also played a good tactical game by limiting the number of Bok lineouts, an area from where they launched effectively last week. There were only three Bok throw-ins to the lineout in the first half.
So while the Bok scrumming was again effective, and it was what stabilised them after they conceded a shock early try, the South Africans just never had the steady stream of go-forward possession they enjoyed last week and which had become an expectation during a winning home run against mediocre opposition during the early stages of the international season.
FIRST ACID TEST
And maybe that’s why this match, and the fact that it was close but the Boks got home in the end, was a timely one for the Boks.
It was the first away win by the Boks in this competition since 2009, and it should bring a bit of much needed perspective ahead of the tough matches against Australia and New Zealand that lie ahead.
Maybe the South Africans needed a good work-out, something they haven’t had so far this season with the possible exception of the first half against Scotland in Nelspruit.
Let’s face it, there has been a lot of hubris around the Bok performances so far this season and this was their eighth win in succession, which means there is a winning habit developing, but had the Boks lost to any one of Italy, Scotland, Samoa or Argentina at home, it would have been grounds for a national inquisition.
They won all those games by big scores, but in the Samoa and Argentina cases the losing teams gave up after halftime, and it might have given a false impression of the Springbok capabilities. This was a match where the opposition was never going to give up, and in many senses it represented the first acid test for the Bok class of 2013.
Given that their first priority must surely have been to still the crowd by getting on top early, the Boks could not have asked for a worse start.
Pienaar was missing in action when a ball came back from a loose scrum, Argentina carried the ball into South African territory, and the Boks had hardly had a feel of the ball when flanker Juan Manuel-Leguizamon crashed over from a lineout for the first Puma try.
Felipe Contepomi’s excellent conversion from near the touchline made it 7-0 after just two minutes, and although Steyn kicked a penalty to cut the deficit by three, it was clear the Pumas were both composed and determined, and that this wouldn’t be an easy day at the office for the Boks. By the 11th minute another Contepomi penalty had regained the seven point advantage.
The best Bok passage of the game saw the Boks hammer away at the Pumas line through the forwards before the ball was spread to the left and Basson jetted over in the corner off the overlap. Fullback Willie le Roux featured several times and impressively in the build-up with his excellent distribution skills.
With the Bok scrum putting their opponents under pressure it looked as if they might start taking control, but they had possession turned over too often and were just unable to establish any kind of attacking momentum.
Perhaps they also tried to play too much rugby, as this time, unlike last week, the Puma defence had the stomach to withstand their attempts to run it at the back and as a consequence the Bok running was made to look way too lateral.
By contrast, the Bok defence hasn’t really been tested this season yet (outside of the Scotland match, where it was poor), and the South Africans did look vulnerable when the Pumas ran at the space between the defenders. This was a feature of the build-up to their second try, which was completed by centre Marcelo Bosch near the uprights after 36 minutes to make it 17-10.
It was to prove the last time in the match that the Pumas troubled the scorers, with Steyn kicking four penalties after that to secure the win, but the Argentinian’s did have their opportunities and applied plenty of pressure.
The bonus point for scoring four tries that the Boks might have felt they needed in their quest to match the All Black feat of doing it away in Sydney last week was never in prospect.
It was a night when they were just lucky to win, with Steyn’s 72nd-minute kick being the first time in the game that the South African’s took the lead. The handling error rate is one of several areas that need looking at before the team get to Brisbane for their next match two weeks from now.
SOUTH AFRICA 22 – Try: Bjorn Basson, Conversion: Morne Steyn; Penalties: Morne Steyn 5. ARGENTINA 17
– Tries: Juan Maneul-Leguizamon and Marcelo Bosch, Felipe Contepomi 2; Penalty: Felipe Contepomi.