Cape Town – In the not too distant past it would have been unusual for the Springboks to be talking about using a match to create some momentum for a clash with Wales but then times have changed and the current team faces different realities.
On some past tours it is the Welsh who have been the stepping stone for bigger challenges for the Boks, but Wales won comfortably against the South Africans in the last match of the disastrous 2016 November tour and the Bok form so far on their current trip hasn’t been convincing enough to suggest that the Welsh shouldn’t start as favourites at the Millennium Stadium next week.
Confidence has been in short supply for the Boks on this tour and so has momentum, with last week’s narrow win in Paris being the first since the away win over Argentina at the end of August that gave Allister Coetzee his first overseas success as coach.
It is the need to find some momentum and confidence ahead of the Cardiff clash that will be the priority for the Boks against Italy in their penultimate match of the year in Padova on Saturday. Although it was far from convincing, the fact they got across the line in Paris will have instilled some confidence after the disaster of Dublin the week before and a rousing win against Italy will be the next step.
The forecasts are for a wet weather game in Padova so we shouldn’t expect a landslide score, but a good, emphatic win will at least create some momentum ahead of a final game that may or may not be relevant to the debate over the future of the current Bok coach.
That coach may not have helped himself by sticking so rigidly to his continuity mantra, but then it is not easy for outsiders to understand the survival mode that Bok coaches, and there is hardly a Bok coach who has not experienced this at some point of his career, tend to slip into when they know their job is under threat.
Coetzee will know that a lot of the requirements of the job that were stipulated at the outset have not been met and that he will still be short of the targets regardless of what happens in the remaining two matches. But it is the win and loss percentages that tend to count the most in the eye of public opinion, so for him a win rather than building for the future has become the imperative in Padova.
Not that the Boks should really be considering themselves to be under threat. Last year’s defeat was surely a freak event, or at least it would be if it wasn’t for those lingering uncomfortable memories of what happened in Brighton against Japan 13 months before that.
Argentina beat Italy fairly comfortably last weekend and the Boks have been some distance better than the Pumas this year so provided the Bok minds haven’t gone walkabout, which can happen at this point of a tour at the end of a long year, they should win comfortably.
The uncomfortable memory of last year’s game should be of the Italians mauling the Boks near their line towards the end. The Italian forward play remains their strength, with skipper Sergio Parisse being by far their best player and the biggest threat to the South Africans. But the Bok pack is improved on last year and is definitely their strength. They are equipped to shut out the Italy big men and that will be the aim.
With the following week’s trip to Cardiff in mind, they should also be hoping for an improved attacking game. While Handre Pollard did make a difference to the directness in Paris there was still too much playing behind the advantage line and the Boks will be in big trouble if they persist with that against a Welsh team widely regarded as the inventers of the press defensive system.
If the predicted bad weather materialises, however, we should expect this to be a game where the Boks grind out a convincing but ugly forward based win