The Springboks are through their first hurdle as they go out to defend a Rugby World Cup title for the first time and if their feeling after the 15 point win in Marseille last night was one of relief rather than elation it would be understandable.
And coach Jacques Nienaber was indeed relieved judging from what he said after the 18-3 win at the Stade Velodrome in a game that looked in the balance at halftime given the way that Scotland had played in the second quarter and in particular the two scrum penalties they were awarded shortly before halftime.
“It could have been a slippery one, Scotland are a good side and are not number five in the world for nothing,” said Nienaber post-match.
“We were only leading 6-3 at half time after having some dominance. They are a nuggety team and hats off to them. We had to grind the win out.”
There were nervous moments and while the Boks always looked likely to win, with the phrase “slow poison”, usually applied to scrumming but also to other aspects of forward play in this instance, often coming to mind during the game, there was just too much for the Boks to lose for the game to really be enjoyable.
There is a chasm between the top four and the rest at this World Cup and the first round of competition confirmed it. Although well beaten by France on the opening night, the All Blacks showed enough to suggest they could be dangerous quarterfinalists in mid-October, something they can now give full focus to as they don’t really have any big opponents remaining in their group.
LOSING THIS GAME WOULD HAVE BEEN CALAMITOUS
You’d take poison right now on any of the top four being victorious against any of the teams ranked from No5, which is Scotland, downwards from there, even given the way England stood up from a poor warmup phase to outplay Argentina on Saturday night in Marseille.
But playing the fifth ranked team in an opening pool game when you also know the No1 ranked team is a future opponent was a tough ask for the Boks and the nerves they showed at stages of their opening win were understandable. In one way a loss to Scotland would have been even more calamitous for them than the loss to Japan was for Heyneke Meyer’s team was at the start of the 2015 World Cup.
The Boks were never going to lose another pool game in that World Cup so while the Japan defeat was freaky, it wasn’t quite the disaster so many made it out to be. Losing to Scotland and putting their advance out of the group phase in jeopardy would have been a massive setback for the Boks, particularly given they are the reigning World Cup champions.
The then coach Rassie Erasmus was particularly nervous about the game against Italy at the last World Cup, for after losing to New Zealand in the opener that would have put them out in the group stage. There would have been similar nerves for this game, and while it is true that Scotland also had a lot to lose, and the weekend underlined how ridiculous the draw that puts three of the top five teams in the same pool is, it was undeniably Siya Kolisi’s men who had the most to lose.
Full marks then to them for the way they retained patience after a second quarter where Scotland started to gain confidence from the Bok failure to translate their dominance into points. It was in the second 20 minutes of the game that the Scots were the most threatening, but fortunately the Boks were able to rely on their old strength - aggressive and stifling defence.
“Defence is just beautiful to me,” said the man who has worked as a defence coach at just about every level of the game.
“Credit to Scotland playing with speed and variety. We had to be sharp to cut off their options.
“They can create something out of nothing. Credit to the players. A lot of hard work has been put in. It took a lot from the players on defence.”
There was also of course the not insignificant matter of a Bok pack that took complete control after halftime.
“Rugby is not a complicated sport. If you get a good platform from the forwards, then you can create momentum that can create some space and then you have some backs who can make some magic,” said the Bok coach.
GOALKICKING REMAINS A CONCERN
Nonetheless, there are areas that the Boks need to address before the quarterfinal against either France or New Zealand arrives in mid-October, namely their lack of success at converting first half dominance into points, something that was evident in the recent big win against the All Blacks, and goalkicking. The two are perhaps related, with the failure to nail kicks that should be nailed meaning the chance to create early scoreboard pressure slips away.
If you consider that France could well be opponents in a possible final should they not bump the Boks in the quarterfinal, then it is hard not to compare the kicking of Manie Libbok with that of the impeccable and metronomic Frenchman Thomas Ramos.
Faf de Klerk took over from Libbok in kicking from the tee after Libbok missed the relatively easy conversion to Pieter-Steph du Toit’s try but although he nailed his first difficult attempt, the conversion of Kurt-Lee Arendse’s try, he was also wayward with a penalty attempt that would have placed more scoreboard pressure on the Scots.
It is hard to say what the solution to the problem is because Libbok’s allround game is excellent and even if Handre Pollard, who let’s be honest would be very short of game time, did manage to get to the World Cup because of an injury to another player, it would be hard to leave Libbok out.
It was the Stormers’ brilliant cross kick that sent Arendse in for the second try and there were many other positives to Libbok’s play outside of his kicking from the tee. Indeed, it is a positive that unlike some players, his misses at goal don’t appear to impact on his confidence in general play.
Nienaber was unable to give an indication of the extent of Eben Etzebeth’s shoulder injury. The lock left the field in the first half. The Boks next play on Sunday when they face Romania, who were smashed by Ireland.