Springbok mettle to be tested once more
September 15, 2011
Francois Hougaard came to South Africa's rescue in last weekend's clash with Wales © Getty Images
After being given an almighty scare by Wales in their tournament opener last Sunday, one imagines that South Africa would have loved a run-out against the weakest of their Pool D rivals, Namibia, this weekend.
Instead, they must fact a Fijian side which displayed enough incision and penetration in their tournament opener against the Namibians to suggest that they are capable of causing the defending champions just as many problems as the Welsh did in Wellington.
The Springboks set off at the Westpac Stadium as if intent on silencing those who have written off their chances of a successful title defence on account of their largely underwhelming form over the past two years.
However, they failed to build on Frans Steyn's early try and the way in which they were driven on to the back foot as the Welsh went about taking control of the contest during a storming spell of domination during the third quarter was most concerning from a South African perspective.
They showed impressive resolve and character in managing to eek out a 17-16 victory but their late rally did not disguise the fact that they had been fortunate in the extreme, with Rhys Priestland and James Hook both squandering late chances to claim what would have been a merited victory for Wales. Indeed, it really had been a case of Wales losing the game as opposed to the Boks winning it. And that's without even getting into the debate over the legitimacy of the penalty that never was!
All in all, South Africa, on the back of such a disjointed display, can ill afford to take victory for granted against Fiji, for whom winger Vereniki Gonev scored a hat-trick in their 49-21.
That victory underlined that if Fiji can attain something resembling parity at the breakdown and secure quality ball, they have the backs to ask questions of a Springbok side which will be missing a number of key players through injury.
South Africa - Player to Watch: With Frans Steyn having been reployed in midfield to fill the void left by the injured Jean de Villiers, Pat Lambie has been handed a start at fullback. The Sharks ace is just 20 years of age but he is a player of enormous talent with a tremendous boot and is capable of having a major impact in this tournament.
South Africa - Team News: The big news for the Boks is that Bakkies Botha, who it had been thought was going to have head home because of an Achilles problem, has been passed fit to start in the second-row Botha. His is a timely return as Victor Matfield has been ruled out with a hamstring problem. Butch James (hip flexor), the aforementioned de Villiers (rib cartilage) and Bryan Habana (patella tendon) have also been sidelined with injuries. Odwa Ndungane will fill the void left by Habana on the left wing. Meanwhile, Gurthro Steenkamp promoted to start at loose-head prop in place of Tendai Mtawarira, who drops to the bench.
Fiji - Player to Watch: Vereniki Goneva lit up last weekend's round of action by scoring a hat-trick against the Namibians. The test now for the Fijian wing is whether he can prove just as lethal against the World Champions.
Fiji - Team News: Fiji boss Samu Domoni has decided against making any alterations to his back-line but there are three changes in the pack. Sunia Koto takes over at hooker from Viliame Veikoso, Akapusi Qera takes over at openside flanker from Mala Ravulo, while Sakiusa Matadigo is preferred to Netani Talei at No.8. Meanwhile, there is a seat on the bench for veteran fly-half Nick Little, who is appearing at his fourth Rugby World Cup. Sisa Koyamaibole, who had to return home last week for personal reasons, has also been named amongst the replacements.
Key Battle: Fiji have recalled Akapusi Qera for Saturday's game and his head-to-head with Springbok scavanger Heinrich Brussouw should prove as explosive as it will decisive.
Trivia: South Africa have a better record in the World Cup than any other country, having won two of the four tournaments in which they have competed.
Stats: Nicky Little will take sole possession of Fiji's Rugby World Cup appearances record if he is sprung from the bench on Saturday. The veteran fly-half, who is playing in his fourth tournament, currently shares the record, which stands at 11, with Moses Rauluni.
"Against a tough proposition like Fiji you would prefer to have all your players available, but this is tournament rugby and we picked our squad knowing that we would have to cover for many situations."
"We, the coaching staff, have identified some areas where we can maximize our team performance to counter and defuse this tactic."
Prediction: The Springboks look vulnerable but they should have enough grit to battle their way to victory over a Fijian side which looked defensively suspect at times against Namibia.
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