Can Pumas claw back against Meyer’s best combination?

There are two ways to look at the progress made by the Springboks in 2013. One is to claim that successive victories by handsome margins prove that coach Heyneke Meyer knows where he is going; the other is to point out that those wins were against Italy, Scotland, Samoa and Argentina. 

It could be argued that we will only really know how good Meyer’s side is a month from now, when they meet the All Blacks at Eden Park.

Will the Boks be caught cold in New Zealand, or will the freight train have gathered enough momentum by then to silence the critics? 

A few clues should be apparent after this week’s Test in Mendoza. 

Worst defeat
The Pumas may have suffered their worst defeat ever against the Boks in Soweto, but a home fixture in the Argentinian equivalent of Stellenbosch should go some way toward keeping the score sensible. And, as Meyer will be reminding his troops, last year at the same venue the score was 16-16.

The Pumas are a side in transition, largely because the players who earned them recognition at successive World Cups in 2003 and 2007 probably stayed together too long. 

Understandably, they wanted the rewards promised by the International Rugby Board when Argentina, belatedly, was admitted to the top table of international sides.

Dr Felipe Contepomi, who scored all of the Pumas points in Soweto, turned 36 this week. He has been trying to retire for three years, but his country needed him. 

A few of the legendary hard men have gone though, such as the force of nature that was prop Rodrigo Roncero and the four-square hooker Mario Ledesma. Two other veterans, lock Patricio Albacete and flanker and captain Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, will also miss the game. 

Major improvements
Even with home advantage, the Pumas should struggle if this Springbok side is as good as some would have us believe.

Undeniably there are major improvements on Meyer’s first year in charge in 2012.  

The long-term injury to Bismarck du Plessis gave the coach a chance to watch Adriaan Strauss press his claims for recognition. The result is that, with Du Plessis now fit again, South Africa can claim the two best hookers in world rugby. 

What’s more, they have different strengths, with the fetching and carrying skills of Du Plessis matched by the set-piece excellence and calm authority of Strauss. Two players who seemed to get in the way of what Meyer was trying to achieve have been removed from the mix at precisely the right time. 

Zane Kirchner was a safe pair of hands at fullback, but his replacement, Willie le Roux, plays the game like a match thrown into a firework factory. Le Roux had his best Test so far last week and has the ability to become the best fullback since André Joubert.

Player selection
The injury to Pierre Spies during the Super Rugby season is the other factor that has changed the game. 

His replacement, Duane Vermeulen, has grasped his chance and shown that there is still a place in international rugby for an old-fashioned number eight. 

Vermeulen’s game harks back to a time when the ability to sprint and offload in the tackle was considered the province of the three-quarter line, while the ability to control the ball at the base of the scrum, to pick it up and draw defenders and to control the amount of ball given to the backs was considered paramount for a proper eighth man.

Spies was preferred by successive Bok coaches because of his pace, but he offers little else. Morné du Plessis had no pace and neither did Gary Teichmann, but both were the emotional anchors of their teams. 

Vermeulen may not reach those heights, but right now the more relaxed play of the national side owes much to his presence.

Clearly it has filtered through to the coach, who was far more specific about his reasons for leaving Trevor Nyakane at home this week than he would have dared to be last year. 

Meyer's team up for the challenge
And then there is the strange case of Fourie du Preez, so influential for 28 minutes in Soweto and not available for selection again until September 28. What coach would allow such a situation? This one, apparently. Du Preez’s snappy service and option-taking stuck the knife into the hide of the wounded Puma beast. It was a potent reminder to other scrum halves of what is required at this level. 

Remarkably, Ruan Pienaar, Jano Vermaak and Piet van Zyl have been given three Tests to show they can raise their games to the same level.

It could all go pear-shaped, of course, if the play of the previous four Tests declines on tour and the Pumas, Wallabies and All Blacks remind us that Springbok sides do not always travel well. 

But Meyer and his team have earned the right to hope for the best.

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