I was a bit surprised that SA didn’t put a huge amount of pressure on a previously creaky Welsh scrum at the weekend but don’t expect to see any changes to their front row. Bismarck du Plessis does have a hand injury (Louw stamped on his hand leaving it quite bloody and broken looking) but he’s expected to be fine. Meyer has finally taken Jannie du Plessis out of the firing line. He has had some penalty issues in the scrum and in the loose recently and I don’t think the people back home will be very pleased if he’s back in the starting line-up again. Having him on the bench does give a bit of a problem in that he isn’t the best impact player and Meyer might be better served leaving him out altogether if he isn’t going to start. One player who could bring an advantage for SA is Adriaan Strauss. The giant toddler will be called on to make an impact from the bench. He’s destructive in the loose, strong over the ball, and will give SA one area of obvious personnel superiority seeing as Mealamu is likely to replace Coles for the ABs.
The real questions about the SA pack come in the back 5. The combination of Lood de Jager, who has been awesome throughout the tournament so far, and Etzebeth should be set in stone as starters by now. There is a real worry in SA that Meyer will go back to Matfield now that he is likely to be fit after de Jager had some issues being turned over against Wales. I noticed that de Jager was more upright when carrying the ball in the quarter final and it has subsequently been revealed that he has a foot injury, making him a doubt for the semi-final. If he isn’t available, it is crucial that SA start with PS du Toit and not Matfield. If he isn’t completely ready, de Jager shouldn’t play. In the Rugby Championship match between SA and the ABs, there was for debut to Super Rugby’s standout lock James Broadhurst. The ABs had to take him off at half time as he was being held up in the tackle due to his upright stance carrying the ball. The ABs turned over a lot of attacking ball in good positions due to this and SA can’t make the same mistake with de Jager. While Matfield would give SA more security in the lineout, he has been reduced to pretty much a specialist that doesn’t contribute elsewhere and SA cannot afford to play the ABs with a second rower who doesn’t tackle, carry the ball or hit rucks. PS du Toit, a hybrid lock-flanker, would offer a lot more around the field for SA in a match that the ABs will try and play at a high tempo. Ideally, Meyer would team them up with Alberts on the bench as lock cover. For me, Alberts isn’t an ideal backrow replacement to have as he isn’t as dynamic as any of the players he would be replacing whereas he could be useful if replacing a lock. His defence could also be useful late in the game as his teammates flag.
It’s a real shame that Meyer didn’t select Heinrich Brussow (or Marcell Coetzee), who has a great record against NZ and would give SA a real out and out fetcher to slow down the ABs in attack. He would have been an ideal replacement to come on in the last 20 minutes to stop the ABs from increasing the tempo even more, which is something they have looked to do against SA in the recent past. Their starting backrow is still more than handy however, and Kolisi is good cover off the bench. I don’t expect to see any changes in the backline and there aren’t any injury concerns (for now at least) but there are some question marks over the replacements. I’m not the biggest fan of Ruan Pienaar and the setup that Meyer has introduced puts a lot of weight on Fourie du Preez as the primary decision maker in the backline. du Preez hasn’t exactly been injury free recently and it remains to be seen if he can stand up to being chased around by the ABs for 80 minutes and I don’t think that Pienaar can take on du Preez’s playmaking responsibility if he has to replace him. He isn’t a particularly elusive runner, lacks the creativity to really hurt the ABs, and his brand of box kicking all the time could leave SA open to counter attacks. In all, it’s disappointing that Meyer didn’t take the opportunity to blood Rudy Paige in some pressure games as he would give a very different attacking option. Hopefully, Meyer hasn’t lost confidence in Pollard after some loose play from him against Wales which will mean that Serfontein will give midfield cover and Pat Lambie will cover 10 and 15 as well as performing the important duty of keeping Morne Steyn out of the starting lineup!
In an ideal world, a fit and on form Cornal Hendricks would be available for selection on the right wing. I don’t think Pietersen will get much joy in attack against Julian Savea, who is a very underrated and tough defender but Hendricks is an exciting runner who hurts defences when he comes of his wing in search of the ball.
One of the features of SA in attack so far has been the way Schalk Burger has been stationed at first receiver. After receiving the ball from du Preez, Burger has three options: 1) take the ball into contact, 2) play a pop pass to a close forward to take into contact, and 3) play a longer pass towards Pollard or Willie Le Roux. Having three options would ordinarily keep a defence guessing but unfortunately, only one of them is a good option. The pop pass allows Burger to immediately clear out the ruck while staying close enough for the ageing du Preez to arrive early and pass out wide to Pollard. The other two options simply allow for the opposition defence to drift out and on to a now deeper Pollard while the fringe ruck defenders get to Burger. By playing to this gameplan, du Preez and Meyer are putting Pollard in a position from where it is very difficult for him to play well and giving him little choice but to kick the ball away or risk losing territory if he passes or runs. SA will be more reluctant to kick the ball away as much in this game as they will not want the AB back 3 to get the ball in space often. For this reason, I doubt that Burger will play as much first receiver in the semi-final.
Pollard has played his best rugby when he plays fast and gets good service from his scrum half. If du Preez and Meyer show more faith in Pollard as a playmaker, he’ll be able to receive the ball flat to the gain line and run. He’s a strong and talented carrier who draws defenders into him, allowing him to open up spaces for de Allende and Kriel. Kriel has grabbed headlines for the great lines he ran for his tries against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship
but I’ve been more impressed with Damian “Doogie” de Allende. Coming into the Rugby Championship, there was some talk about de Allende being a liability defensively but he hasn’t had many problems so far. He has forged a good relationship with Kriel but the most impressive thing about him is his strength in contact. Considering that he’s not the biggest centre (weighing in at around 100kg), it has seemed almost impossible for the first tackler to bring him down. Against the ABs earlier this year, at one stage (an admittedly injured) Nonu just bounced off him and he wasn’t the only one. On a closer look, you can see why he’s so good at driving through tackles. He has a knack of slowing down before going into contact, giving him time to get the ball into a secure one handed carrying position before accelerating into the contact and pushing tacklers off with his free arm while continuing to drive his legs through the tackle. Obviously his strength and athleticism helps but there are a lot of fast, strong players and his instinctive technique seems to give him something extra. With the talent that SA now have at 10, 12 and 13, SA could convert half chances if turnover ball goes to the trio as quickly as possible. Mixing this up with strong carrying and an intelligent (but less frequent) maul can give SA the route to a victory over the ABs. If SA do this, they can catch the ABs out at the start and get out to a good lead, as they have managed to do in a few matches recently.
Defensively, I’d like to see the two wings stay in close and give the AB wingers the outside line when the ABs have the ball centrally. The ABs will try to punch holes through the middle of the defensive line and staying narrow will allow Pietersen and Habana to cover across faster. Having Le Roux make a one on one tackle will not be good enough – almost all of the ABs are good enough with the ball in hand to find a support runner and when that happen, they invariably find their way to the try line.
Without Brussow, SA will adopt a ‘breakdown-by-committee’ approach. It’ll be vital for them to intelligently slow the ball for the ABs while staying on the right side of Garces. The ABs will look for a quick clear out most of the time so SA would be well served to pick and choose the breakdowns it contests, keeping players out to congest the defensive line at other times. While in possession, they’ll be aware that the ABs won’t contest every breakdown but will try to goad SA to overcommit to a breakdown before flooding the next one with numbers. If SA fall into the trap, the ABs will almost certainly achieve a turnover in the next phase so it will be on du Preez to control how many of his forwards go in to each ruck.
It will be the experienced scrum-half’s responsibility to coax the best game possible from Pollard. He can do this by taking some of the responsibility for clearing kicks and giving the ball to Pollard quicker in attack. Regular early service will encourage Pollard to stay flat and give SA the platform to play an attacking game against the ABs. If he doesn’t, Pollard will be forced abandon his dangerous running game to kick the ball away to the talented AB back three.
Thor is back. Parisse aside, Vermuelen is the only No.8 at this World Cup who can rival Kieran Read’s ability with ball in hand. Deceptively fast while as strong as a bull, expect SA to use Vermuelen to punch holes in the AB defensive line. While everyone has spent the last week fawning over his offloading in the tackle, keep an eye out for him over the ball. Once he gets in there, it’s like someone’s put a clamp on the ball. His stocky, square-ish body shape (like a bigger, less agile Pocock) makes him almost impossible to shift once he’s onto the ball.
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on Pietersen from a disciplinary standpoint as he has been a bit sloppy in the tournament so far (escaping possible yellow cards for taking a player out in the air and a possible tip tackle). He’ll have to stay on the right side of Garces because the ABs will almost certainly punish SA otherwise. SA will also have to be careful of how they interact with the Garces. McCaw has mastered the art so it’s important that SA can match any influence that McCaw has. For me, Meyer has missed a trick by giving the captaincy to Fourie du Preez rather than Schalk Burger, raising the potential for McCaw to have slightly more influence over any scrum infringements.
Can SA win?
Scoreboard pressure will be key in this game. It will be important for SA to get out to a lead of 4 or more points early on to put pressure on the ABs as time goes on and just as importantly, SA will have to stop the ABs from scoring points twice in succession. We saw how impressive the ABs’ restart strategy was against France and SA can’t let the ABs dominate this aspect of the game if they want to make the final. If they can do that, a narrow SA victory in the face of a surging AB attack is on the cards.
Over the last 7 (4 in SA and 3 in NZ) matches between the two since the last World Cup, the ABs have 6 wins to SA’s one with an average score of 26.5-18. SA have the best chance of the sides remaining to beat NZ but with the relative form of the two teams, I can’t see any reason for that trend to change and if the ABs get out to a lead of 8+ points at any time, I don’t think SA have it in them to chase them down (yellow or red cards notwithstanding) although they are too proud a team to let the ABs run riot. 29-15 to the ABs.