The Springboks finished their Rugby World Cup on a high with a comprehensive 24-13 win over Argentina at the Olympic Stadium in London.
The Springboks grabbed the bronze medal at the tournament, overcoming their heartbreaking loss to the All Blacks last week to play clinical rugby against a side that has caused them a lot of problems in the immediate past. The win also confirmed they will end the year third in the rankings, but looking like they are still a long way behind their Sanzar brethren that will play in the final on Saturday.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer likened this contest to “kissing your sister” a week ago and with the muted atmosphere it wasn’t hard to see, at times so flat that it resembled a training game. If World Rugby are really serious about making the World Cup a bigger spectacle then a game like this should be scrapped, no matter what it means to the tournament revenue.
Still it was hard to get excited about a contest where both teams looked out on their feet, and incredibly unwilling at times to take too many risks.
That was probably understandable from a Springbok perspective, where Meyer would have felt his job depended on the result, but it also showed a side that is intent on their own low-risk game plan that they stifle their own creativity.
When the Boks did try and run, and they did more in this game than in any of their knockout matches combined, they looked stale, unable to find the space and unwilling to be as bold as their public wants them to be.
But to give the Boks all the blame for the stale match would be harsh. In the end it is still a test match, and needed to be won. But their lack of enterprise has been the biggest whip they’ve given their critics to beat them with. They may have ended third in this World Cup, but the disappointment of losing against Japan earlier on and against the All Blacks will continue to haunt them, with unanswered questions still remaining about the future of the side.
The Bok team will be remembered not for the games they grinded out for victory, but rather their lack of adventure, their low-risk approach that may have got them to third, but never looked like getting them all the way.
And Meyer certainly does have questions to answer. Why when the Boks were 24-6 up and in control of the game in the last 20 minutes, did he persist with Ruan Pienaar and not give Rudy Paige a run? Paige was again the last substitute on the field with less than five minutes left, when he certainly could have started this game.
Third place may well be “acceptable” as defence coach John McFarland said earlier in the week, but more was expected of this Bok team and their own laager mentality after losing to Japan hasn’t helped them much. This Bok team may not have the skills of the All Blacks or Wallabies, but a mixture of their power game and some width would have won them more fans at the tournament.
Whatever happens in the near future, it may well be worth looking further than just the debate on the coaching team. South African rugby has had a year to forget, from Super Rugby to the Junior Boks. Third is not something they should be satisfied with.
And then there were the sideshows. Bryan Habana missed out on bettering the record he shares with the great Jonah Lomu. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t have chances. Yet on the same ground he equaled Lomu’s record, the Bok winger had a nightmare and couldn’t find the tryline despite three good chances to score.
The closest was probably Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino beating him by fingertips to a chase after the ball was stabbed through on attack. An impressive break by Handre Pollard in the 28th minute and a big loping pass to Habana on the wing should have sent him away. Instead he bobbled the ball twice before losing it, and another opportunity to make the record his own.
It was some irony then when Eben Etzebeth – by far the man of the match with a huge effort on the night – popped up on Habana’s wing to score South Africa’s second try. It was simply one of those nights and while some may have been stunned when coach Heyneke Meyer subbed him with 15 to go, it was clear before then he was unlikely to score.
The Boks were good in the first 60, but lost the second half 13-8 in a game that really deserved better for the 55000 crowd.
It started when Thomas Cubelli was yellow carded early on for not retreating 10 metres and the Boks went to the corner. A beautiful maul set the platform before the ball went out to JP Pietersen who beat Santiago Cordero one on one to score in the corner.
Pollard added a great conversion from the sideline, and despite Habana’s chances the Boks couldn’t progress further. Three more penalties saw them head into the changerooms for a workmanlike 16-0 lead.
Nicolas Sanchez started the second half better for Los Pumas with a well-drilled drop goal to get them on the board, but their joy was short-lived.
Pollard got the ball on attack, changed direction and sent the ball through the quick hands of Willie le Roux and Habana to Etzebeth who ghosted in on the wing.
Another Pollard penalty made it 24-6 and the Boks seemed to shut up shop, rather than start enjoying the freedom of their own game.
Argentina became stronger, and started putting in the phases. And while the tough Springbok defence always had enough to win the game, they weren’t as impressive as they could have been in the last 20 minutes.
Juan Pablo Orlandi went over in injury time from close range to make the scoreline look palatable for the visitors, but in essence the Boks had more than enough to win the game.
The real disappointment was that they didn’t put the foot down and put Los Pumas away.
SOUTH AFRICA – tries: JP Pietersen, Eben Etzebeth. Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (4).
ARGENTINA – try: Juan Pablo Orlandi. Conversion: Nicolas Sanchez. Penalties: Sanchez (2).