Taking their heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a massive problem with the scrum would be a good start, but the Springbok self-analysis will have to go far further than that if the problems that were exposed by Argentina are not to lead to crisis later in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship.
On a Saturday when New Zealand comprehensively swept away any doubt that they remain the team to beat and confirmed the pre-tournament predictions that they should retain their hegemony in southern hemisphere rugby, Salta provided evidence that the creaks that started to show themselves in the South African game in the second test against Wales may not have just been an aberration.
Line-out specialist Victor Matfield and big ball carrying forward Willem Alberts will be added to the group that departs for Australia later this week ahead of the match against the Wallabies in Perth on Saturday week, 6 September. Alberts has been missed and so has Matfield, but both were present when the most critical area of concern, the scrumming, started to be exposed in the June internationals.
They were also both in the team that was fortunate to win against a Wales team that outplayed them for three quarters of the game at Mbombela Stadium. That performance was regarded as a once-off, and that is what South Africans would have been hoping, but take away the big win over a weak and depleted Scotland, and the reality dawns that Nelspruit was not an isolated bad day at the office at all.
There was the mitigating circumstance of an unseasonal downpour at Loftus the previous week, but on a day when previous good Bok teams would have been expected to stand up and make a statement, the Boks turned out to be even more abject in Salta than they were in Nelspruit and Pretoria
Coach Heyneke Meyer is right to be positive about the way his team responded to the pressure of being down in two of the three games under the microscope. It may even be what the Boks need at this stage of their build towards next year’s World Cup in England. But if he was honest, he would have to admit that in both instances the opposition lack of self-belief and consequent inability to close out the games is all that stood between them and defeats that could have been by humiliating margins.
That has to be a concern if you take into consideration that Wales have never won in South Africa and the Boks have never lost to Argentina, particularly with the All Blacks being so resounding in their annihilation of Australia in Auckland. The Pumas do have a strong scrumming reputation, but they have seldom in the modern era been as completely dominant as they were in Salta.
At the same time, it is also hard to recall when last, if ever, the South African big men have been so humiliated in that phase of the game. Make no mistake, it would have had a knock-on effect on the other areas, and why it is hard to really criticise individuals or combinations that ended up playing behind a tight five that was in constant reverse gear.
It is reasonable to wonder though whether the Boks were caught short to some extent by the same debilitation that impacted on the Wallabies in Auckland – bad selection. Juan Smith’s selection seemed like a good idea if he was to produce his 2010 form and be a ball carrier and additional line-out option. He ended up being anonymous, and with Gurthro Steenkamp not passing muster either, you do have to wonder if the first step Meyer should take in building up to the Australasian chapter in the Rugby Championship is to resolve that past reputation should not be a criteria of selection.
Bryan Habana has carried on from where he left off playing for the Stormers at the start of last year and Fourie du Preez is a rugby genius and contributes when he is present, but the contribution of the rest of the foreign legion is questionable. Bakkies Botha was good for maybe 50 minutes back in 2011, now he may be good for 15 at the most, and the Bok midfield looked a lot more settled before Meyer introduced Jaque Fourie for the end of year test matches.
Since then we have seen two players out of position in the No 13 jersey – Damian de Allende is an inside centre – and given that it is the outside centre who should be directing the defence, it could well be the reason why the Bok defence at the back has become so porous (yes, that was another area that was also exposed by Wales).
The presence of the overseas legion also raises another question related to team continuity, something which Meyer regards as important but which he chooses to neglect whenever he feels inclined to call in an overseas based player with a reputation built before 2011. Injuries are having an effect on Meyer’s quest to field the same team, but so are overseas commitments, with too many players being available for some games but not others.
Meyer’s argument that when players are not available it gives others an opportunity to build experience is a valid one, but that has to be weighed up against the need for continuity which at other times he regards as so important. In the two tests against Argentina the Boks played with a new second row combination, a new back row combination, a new halfback combination, a new midfield combination... When you look at it like that, it is small wonder the team looked so disjointed and lacked fluidity.
The players who came out of the Salta game with reputations intact were Willie le Roux, who tried his best to plug holes at the back and spark attacking opportunities, the two wings and reserve loose-forward Marcell Coetzee. The latter was more industrious than some critics thought he was in the Loftus game, and perhaps his omission from the team – he had only started because of the 11th hour withdrawal of Alberts – was premature.
For the rest it was a forgettable day out and while the Boks did win to extend their winning run to eight since their last defeat, against the All Blacks in Johannesburg, they are going to have to make a massive improvement between now and Perth if they are to back up Meyer’s confidence that they can win the competition.
They dropped two points in the first week of competition, but after their sublime performance against Australia, right now all the momentum is with the All Blacks and it is hard to think of a Bok combination that matches its counterpart in the New Zealand team.
Gavin Rich for SuperSport