South Africa, Argentina desperate for Rugby World Cup boost
DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — While Argentina may have expected to be in this position, South Africa didn’t.
Both go searching for a desperately needed first win in the Rugby Championship when they meet on Saturday, knowing the Rugby World Cup is just around the corner and three straight losses will be pretty tough to get over, especially for the South Africans.
The Pumas, as expected, have struggled in the tournament since joining in 2012, losing 18 out of 20 tests.
South Africa’s failures this season have been more surprising after the No. 2-ranked Springboks began the year hoping to close the gap on world champion New Zealand ahead of rugby’s showpiece next month.
Instead, it’s gone the other way. South Africa lost back-to-back tests to Australia and New Zealand, both after leading into the dying minutes and seemingly being in control, and had their plans undermined by a slew of injuries.
Coach Heyneke Meyer even suggested after the home loss to the All Blacks two weeks ago that the Springboks ought to be viewed as outsiders for a third World Cup title, written off, maybe, by their pre-tournament form.
As Australia and New Zealand meet to decide the title, Meyer’s credibility is likely on the line on Saturday. Not only would a loss to Argentina be unacceptable with six weeks to go to the World Cup, it would also be an historic first defeat to the Pumas for the Boks.
There is already a sense of disbelief in the Springboks camp that two seemingly dominant performances against the Wallabies and All Blacks unraveled in the final few minutes.
“We will never accept that we lost our last two tests,” Meyer said this week, calling South Africa’s performance in the final stages of those games “simply not good enough.”
Meyer pinpointed missing experience as the biggest problem in those late slumps, so the return of captain and center Jean de Villiers against Argentina for his first test in eight months should partly solve that.
“Now we need to get back to winning ways,” Meyer said.
De Villiers’ recovery from a career-threatening knee injury just in time for the World Cup does create other complications though, for Meyer, who has been forced to break up the promising young midfield partnership of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. Kriel, who scored two tries in his first two tests, has shifted to wing.
Lock Victor Matfield, flanker Willem Alberts, No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez are still missing with injury, while utility back Frans Steyn left the squad this week following the death of his brother, which South African media reported was a suicide.
The reaction of Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade to a 34-9 home loss to Australia two weeks ago was sweeping, with 11 changes to the 23-man matchday squad for Durban.
Hourcade chose a completely new loose forward combination of Pablo Matera, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore, a new scrumhalf and flyhalf in Tomas Cubelli and Juan Martin Hernandez, and new centers in Jeronimo de la Fuente and Marcelo Bosch.
Argentina’s progression to a top-tier rugby team hasn’t come as quickly as expected after it surprisingly made the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup, and the Rugby Championship has been a succession of defeats and a wake-up call for the Pumas. The glimmer of hope for Argentina is that it has regularly managed to push South Africa close, drawing in 2012, and losing by five points, seven points, and just two points in their last three meetings.
But Hourcade also said he would have to “look after” some of his players in the final round of this championship — maybe an explanation for the changes — ahead of their toughest possible opening game at the World Cup: Against the All Blacks.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Jesse Kriel, Jean de Villiers (captain), Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Ruan Pienaar; Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee, Heinrich Brussow, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Marcel van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie, Lwazi Mvovo.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Horacio Agulla, Marcelo Bosch, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Juan Imhoff, Juan Martin Hernandez, Tomas Cubelli; Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti Pagadizaval, Francisco Nahuel Tetaz, Agustin Creevy (captain), Marcos Ayerza. Reserves: Julian Montoya, Lucas Noguera Paz, Matias Diaz, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lezana, Martin Landajo, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Lucas Amorosino.