South Africa will get their 2013 campaign for silverware underway on Saturday, as they welcome Argentina to Soccer City, Soweto, in the opening round of The Rugby Championship. Both sides have very different pedigrees in the international arena, with the hosts boasting two World Cup victories, whilst the visitors, who made their inaugural appearance at TRC (formerly Tri-Nations) last year, are still getting used to participating in an annual international tournament. That being said, both teams play with a physicality that most other international teams can only dream of, and when these two teams come head-to-head, fireworks often ensue.
If South Africa are to harbour realistic hopes of winning the championship, then not only is a win vital on Saturday, but also a winning bonus point. Argentinean rugby may have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but playing them at home is the closest South Africa will come to having an ‘easy’ game in the tournament. In reality, the game will be anything but easy, but South Africa will be confident they have the quality to overcome the challenge. When comparing the benches of both sides, South Africa’s quality is clearly evident, with the Boks able to unleash the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Guthrö Steenkamp, Siya Kolisi, and Pat Lambie in the second half, not to the mention the return of Fourie du Preez, who was such a vital part of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup winning side.
It is unfortunate that the Argentinean side of 2007 never had an opportunity to play in an annual tournament such as this, but their legacy has seen the South American side inducted into arguably the most competitive international rugby tournament across both hemispheres, and the benefits are already being reaped. The current Argentina side might not boast the talent of their predecessors, but they are beginning to develop a team which has real depth. Golden generations come along every now and again – just ask English fans – but Argentina are now well on the path to future success, and more importantly, being able to maintain that success. Although Argentina will fancy their chances of upsetting the Boks, a losing bonus point may be considered a decent return on their trip across the Atlantic.
All Eyes On
The return of Duane Vermeulen from a long injury lay-off has been a cause for celebration amongst South African fans, particularly with Pierre Spies, who had been manning the eight jersey, going down with injury. If Vermeulen can play with the same work rate and dynamism that he showed with the Boks in last year’s Autumn Internationals, then there are few teams who will be able to live with South Africa’s powerful back row, where he is ably assisted by Francois Louw and Willem Alberts. Vermeulen’s carrying, tackling and leadership will all be vital if South Africa are to see off Argentina’s challenge.
With the talismanic Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe missing the game – a huge loss for the Pumas – prop Juan Figallo will be the focus of much attention, as he attempts to become a leader in Argentina’s pack. Normally a tighthead prop for both club and country, Figallo has been shuffled along to loosehead, to accommodate Matias Diaz at tighthead. This means that Figallo will not only have to bear the burden of playing in an unaccustomed position, but also take on the experienced Jannie du Plessis at the scrum. If Figallo can hold his own in the scrum against du Plessis, then it will be a case of job done for the Montpellier man.
Head to Head: Tendai Mtawarira vs Matias Diaz
Mtawarira, or ‘The Beast’, as he is arguably now more commonly known as, needs no introduction. The Sharks man is a formidable scrummager, strong carrier, and fierce tackler, making him a daunting challenge for even the most experienced tighthead props in the game, let alone a 20-year old who still plays his club rugby in Argentina, such as Diaz. It’s hard to imagine a much more intimidating scenario for Diaz, who has just three caps to his name, than facing Mtawarira in front of an expected 95,000 crowd at Soccer City, but the youngster is highly rated in his homeland, and if there was a game to come out and make a statement in, this would certainly be it. All expectations will be on Mtawarira to dominate this match-up, and although common sense might agree, there is a slight feeling of ‘nothing to lose’ for Diaz, whose stock could rise immeasurably with a good performance in South Africa, whilst a poor performance would be chalked up as an important learning opportunity, and that there is no shame in being bested by one of the top scrummagers in the world.
The growing depth being exhibited by Argentina, and the blooding of youngsters, are all positive steps, but whether or not they have the quality to compete away from home with the likes of South Africa is still very questionable. Although I can’t see anything other than a South African victory, I fancy Argentina to deny the Boks a winning bonus point. South Africa by 17.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)