Meyer, Argentina both seek progress in 2nd season
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and Argentina hope to show solid signs of progress at this Rugby Championship after both made shaky debuts in 2012.
Meyer’s first examination by world champion New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the southern hemisphere’s flagship competition produced unconvincing results. It included a surprise draw at newcomer Argentina and ended with a loss at home to the top-ranked All Blacks, the longtime rival the Springboks always measure themselves against.
South Africa wants its form to be much closer to rugby’s dominant world champion this season, starting against Argentina on Saturday.
A competitive and typically rugged Argentina was completely outplayed just once in six games in its first season among rugby’s elite, but is still searching for a morale-boosting maiden victory in the championship.
Meyer began to make his mark at the back end of 2012, with the Springboks winning their last six tests — most recently 56-23 over Samoa — and the coach starting to mold a team with the 2015 World Cup already in the planning.
The Boks begin their championship where they left off in 2012, at Soweto’s 90,000-plus FNB Stadium. Their progress in the 12 months since they were blown away in the second half by a rampant All Blacks will be dissected when they start against Argentina with the core of the team that has won three out of three tests in 2013.
“Continuity has been key for us this year and that is why we’ve opted not to make too many changes.” Meyer said. “I think it was clear last year that the Argentinians are not in the Rugby Championship to make up the numbers, which means we will have to be focused on doing the little things right. They’ve been together for a few weeks now and will be a tough opponent.”
For Argentina’s Pumas, ranked No. 10 compared with the 1, 2 and 3 of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, the hunt for a breakthrough win resumes against the Springboks. They came close to a first-ever victory over South Africa in a 16-16 draw in Mendoza last year.
“Our will is strong and I believe that, although we know it’s going to be a tough match, we want to keep developing,” experienced second-rower Patricio Albacete said. “Who knows, maybe the result of this development is to win at the championship.”
In the lineups, the recall of 31-year-old scrumhalf Fourie du Preez to South Africa’s bench after a two-year absence from internationals was explained by Meyer as an injection of experience into his relatively new team.
But there are also unsolved problems in two key positions: at No. 9, where Du Peez has been brought back, and No. 5 lock. In both, Meyer hasn’t yet found trusted replacements for 2007 World Cup winners Du Preez and Victor Matfield.
Argentina must begin its second Rugby Championship without injured captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, a significant blow after the No. 8 was at the heart of the South Americans’ determined performances last season.
Two other factors could be important as the Springboks and Pumas measure how far they’ve come in the last year.
New scrum engagement laws will be trialed in the tournament, and the game will likely be in front of a large and emotional crowd as South Africa dedicates a day of sport at the FNB to its iconic 95-year-old former president, Nelson Mandela.
Argentina thinks the scrum changes will suit the visitors’ undeniable strength in that crucial area of the game.
“I think it will be like a longer scrum and maybe a deeper scrum, if you know what I mean,” Argentina hooker Eusebio Guinazu said. “So I think it’s more like our Argentinian scrum culture.”
South Africa’s lasting lesson from Mendoza will be that it cannot treat Argentina as a tuneup for facing New Zealand later in the championship.
“You never know ... they are an exciting team, they have a good kicking game, they are good runners with the ball,” South Africa flyhalf Morne Steyn said.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar; Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Gurthro Steenkamp, Coenie Oosthuizen, Flip van der Merwe, Siya Kolisi, Fourie du Preez, Pat Lambie, Jan Serfontein.
Argentina: Juan Martin Hernandez, Gonzalo Camacho, Marcelo Bosch, Felipe Contepomi (captain), Juan Imhoff, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo; Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Pablo Matera, Patricio Albacete, Manuel Carizza, Matias Diaz, Eusebio Guinazu, Juan Figallo. Replacements: Agustin Creevy, Nahuel Lobo, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Mariano Galarza, Julio Farias Cabello, Tomas Cubelli, Santiago Fernandez, Horacio Agulla.
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