Notwithstanding the awful events in Cairo, the eyes of much of the sporting world will be on South Africa on Saturday as a football international and a rugby Test are played at the same stadium on the same day. By KEN BORLAND.
Bafana Bafana will take on Burkina Faso in a friendly at FNB Stadium from 1.30pm, to be followed by the Springboks’ Rugby Championship opener against Argentina from 5pm, and it’s all to celebrate the birthday of Nelson Mandela, the Messiah from the Transkei, as the Parlotones call Madiba.
With a music concert to come after the rugby match, there is plenty of scope for things to get messy as a soccer field has to be turned into an international rugby pitch.
For the sake of the ailing former president’s good name, let’s hope everything works smoothly.
But the Springboks have a different kind of mess to try and avoid on Saturday.
Their last meeting with Argentina ended in a 16-16 draw in Mendoza last August as the Pumas turned the breakdowns, now the most important facet of rugby, into a messy scramble for possession. The naïve Springboks failed to protect their ball in the rucks, the cleaners weren’t there to hold off a horde of spoilers, and South Africa could never get their game plan going and were fortunate to escape with a draw thanks to a charge-down try by Frans Steyn.
This year, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has tried to ensure the breakdowns are an area of strength for his team. Not only has he hired a Scot – Richie Gray – as a specialist consultant for that key area, but he has also chosen a back row that features two players renown for their ability in the rucks in eighthman Duane Vermeulen and openside flank Francois Louw.
With Siya Kolisi, another loose forward who plays to the ball, on the bench it is clear Meyer has placed new emphasis on the breakdowns.
Of course, quick ball still has to be used wisely and much will depend on how sharp scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar and subsititute Fourie du Preez, a hero of yesterday making an international comeback a la George Smith, are when it comes to controlling the game and distributing to the backline.
It’s easy to picture Saturday’s groundbreaking Test becoming a dour battle for territory.
Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn spoke this week about righting the wrongs of that Mendoza shocker and using a kicking game to pin Argentina in their own half, while not spending too much time in their own territory.
Meyer sometimes errs on the side of caution in selection and strategy, but it is encouraging that he has chosen the likes of Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht and Bjorn Basson in the backline.
All of them have formidable attacking strengths but they have also all made defensive blunders this year that would have been enough to send them to church on Sunday for forgiveness. But there’s no doubt fullback Le Roux has added vision and spark to the backline, Engelbrecht has the pace and strength to cut defences to shreds and Basson has brilliant ability in the air and tremendous pace on the counter-attack.
Forward play has traditionally been the strength of the Pumas and Meyer has identified that it is amongst the backs, where veterans Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers are playing as well as they ever have, where the Springboks could have a clear edge.
The Argentina team has been rocked by the absence of star loose forward Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and highly-rated prop Marcos Ayerza, but it is still crucial that the Springboks have done their homework on the new scrum laws, that seem tailor-made to the famous bajada scrum employed by the Pumas.
A weak scrum has done irreparable damage to several team’s chances already this year, but Meyer is a great believer in laying a platform up front in the set-pieces.
A great deal of work has also been done on the Springbok lineout, where the rapidly-maturing Juandre Kruger has returned in the number five jersey.
Providing everyone does their job clinically, the Springboks should have too much firepower for Argentina, who lost 27-6 to the Springboks in Cape Town in their Rugby Championship debut last year.
Speaking of debuts, Ewen McKenzie will make his first appearance as the new Australian coach when they take on the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday.
McKenzie, the Queensland Reds coach until last month, has put his trust mostly in a bunch of players who led the Brumbies into the SuperRugby final.
Chief among those is Matt Toomua, the debutant who has been put in the crucial flyhalf position, ahead of Reds pivot Quade Cooper, who is back in the Wallabies squad after falling out with previous coach Robbie Deans. DM