Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from Springboks v Los Pumas as Argentina rue a missed opportunity

Julian Montoya and Pablo Matera for Argentina. Credit: Alamy

Julian Montoya and Pablo Matera for Argentina. Credit: Alamy

Following the Springboks’ 22-21 victory over Los Pumas at Ellis Park on Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the Rugby Championship clash.

The top line

In a scrappy and almost endless affair, South Africa’s defence just about saw them home in the face of a spirited but inaccurate performance from the visiting Argentinians.

It was a match loaded with controversies and errors in equal measure, one that Argentina refused to win and one that South Africa insisted on trying to lose. It took a Manie Libbok breakaway try in the last 10 minutes against the run of play to give the Boks enough of a cushion to see the game out, after Damian de Allende and Eben Etzebeth had crashed over, both from set-piece moves in the space of seven minutes in the first half.

The bottom line is South Africa will finish runners-up in a tournament where they started off like a firework and ended up rather like a damp squib, losing all form of cohesion and momentum as the competition progressed. For Argentina, this was a match where they will rue both their performance, the result and most of all, the opportunity to take the scalp of the world champions in their iconic Ellis Park.

The longest Test

This was a match that, from first to last whistle, took an extraordinary 137 minutes to complete.

It started in the 16th second of the match when a charge-down attempt from Juan Cruz Mallia ended in a clumsy challenge which ended up with his buttocks taking out the clearing Grant Williams, resulting in a stoppage lasting 19 minutes as the medical team rightly took care of a distressed Bok scrum-half.

The incident was extremely reminiscent of CJ Stander on Pat Lambie in 2016 – an incident that resulted in a red card from Matthieu Raynal for the Irish flank.

But was it the same? One might argue that in today’s case it was a far clearer and faster attempt at a charge-down and one that almost resulted in success with the ball being touched in flight, so by that measure it was certainly a lot nearer legality than Stander’s effort. You could argue it was reckless – but what exactly was reckless? A legal attempt? It was a very hard decision to adjudicate, but outcome judged, you might argue that Argentina were lucky not to see a card of at least a yellow hue.

For the rest of the match an innocent collision saw another lengthy stoppage as Lucas Martin Paulos Adler’s head lost an argument with Duane Vermeulen’s left knee as the Pumas lock totally got his shape wrong going for the new style low, ‘safe’ tackle.

With inaccuracies causing a host of stoppages thereafter, the South African authorities can only thank their lucky stars that they didn’t encroach into the infamous national Stage 3 loadshedding period that was rumoured tonight in the Highveld. Although after watching the fayre on offer some of the more discerning fans at this ground may have considered this scant consolation for having to endure this unedifying spectacle for so long.

Bok brutality

For all the lack of spark South Africa lacked in attack, they need to thank their formidable defensive brutality for getting them over the line in this match. They completed 161 massive tackles, missing only 22 all evening, with an astonishing 21 efforts being recording as ‘dominant hits’.

It helped their cause that Argentina insisted on attacking the Boks area of strength – the middle of the park – rather than trying to use fast hands and feet to get their pacemen around the side of the blitz.

But for all the South African excellence in defence, there will be some big concerns firstly over their lineout, which was unusually inaccurate and suffered a number of technical flaws, especially around their early jumping, and most of all their attacking shape, which lacked direction, fluidity and impact.

Libbok’s performance against Australia earlier this year impressed many that saw it, but with Cobus Reinach at nine and the wonderful Andre Esterhuizen at 12 on his shoulder he had pace and power in equal measure either side of him. Today he struggled with the one dimensional De Allende at 12, someone that really struggles with attacking moves working from left to right of the pitch and the South Africans didn’t help themselves by continually seeking contact over offload.

The Springboks have been a mixed bag this season; their challenge now is to take the best moments of all of their performances and use their huge depth of squad to identify their real best Test match 23, and right now, it’s a moot point whether or not they know quite what that is.

Los Pumas inaccuracy

Michael Cheika may very well rue his decision to rest the talismanic Emiliano Boffelli for the first time in his coaching tenure as there is little doubt that he would have nailed at least two of the blown kicks missed by Santiago Carreras. Poor kicking is unusual for Argentina and it’s rare to see a miss of any nature from this proud footballing nation.

Nevertheless, inaccuracy was not limited to the tee; in midfield part of the reason that the Boks defended so brutally and so accurately was the wild nature of the Argentinian midfield passing, where we saw thunderingly hard passes thrown to every part of the Puma bodies other than the bread basket where they needed to be. With the pace available to them in the outside backs, sympathetic accuracy in pass executed well will create so more space and time and prevent tackle after tackle coming in at the ribs of players extended to take passes.

Cheika will be pleased with so much of their work today but when a side gets so close and fails due to engineering their own downfall through poor execution, it can hurt a lot more than losing heavily, and what will define his coaching is how he gets his players to respond to their errors at Ellis Park.

Looking forward

The Springboks walk into the Rugby World Cup in a form wobble but knowing they have huge depth in their playing stocks moving forward. It’s key that they work out their attacking shape and use the players available that play the most complete game of rugby possible. Winning ugly in this game is one thing but against France, Ireland or New Zealand sheer power is no longer enough to win consistently and it’s essential that South Africa develop their game in the next couple of weeks before they defend their world champion title.

For Argentina there is a similarity in selection; the switch between Pablo Matera and Juan Martin Gonzalez at six and eight in the back-row is a curious one. Much of the best moments of Los Pumas last year came off Matera’s directness in carry off the back of the scrum which caused problems for so many defences. At nine today the finisher Gonzalo Bertranou looked sharp and threatening and it’s essential that Cheika looks to get his considerable skill-set on the pitch for as long as possible.

But as the South Americans move into their pool in the Rugby World Cup, they’ll travel knowing they’ve the forward pack to compete with the Boks and the All Blacks but face nothing near that level of power and physicality in their group. It’s been a useful learning season once again for Julian Montoya and his troops and we’ll find out how well they’ve absorbed their learnings in the next three months in France.

READ MORE: Springboks player ratings: Veteran forward duo catch the eye in narrow win over Argentina

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