Argentina dealt an unexpected and massive blow to the South African World Cup confidence as wing Juan Imhoff scored a hattrick of tries in an emphatic 37-25 victory over the Springboks at Growthpoint Kings Park on Saturday that will reverberate around the rugby globe.
This was supposed to the game where the Boks would hit the winning trail and score the comprehensive victory that would erase memories of the opening two Castle Lager Rugby defeats at the hands of New Zealand and Australia. But instead of a confidence builder, it turned into a confidence destroyer, with the Boks comprehensively outplayed by a team that scored their first ever win over the South Africans in 23 years of trying.
The bookmakers had the Boks winning by nearly 20 points, and maybe Jean de Villiers’ team expected it to just happen for them, for to put it bluntly, this was a game where they just failed to pitch against a far more cohesive, decisive and energetic team that took the game by the scruff from the opening minutes.
As so often as it happens against Argentina when they play well, it was at the scrums where it started for the South American team, and Vincent Koch, who was replaced at halftime, might have seen his chances of going to the World Cup dissipate under the Kings Park lights. But there wasn’t any other area where the Boks could say they competed, and a porous defensive system had the alarm bells ringing loudly from an early stage of the game.
The first try came as early as the third minute, with Imhoff involved in the creation rather than the finishing that he was later to be credited with. It came off a set move from a lineout, Imhoff coming in off the blindside wing to take an inside ball from flyhalf Juan-Martin Hernandez and scything through the middle before putting centre Marcelo Bosch in for the easiest of tries.
The Boks were woeful in the opening 20 minutes, where they were guilty of tactical ineptitude. Perhaps there is just too much talk in the squad about attacking rugby, for it was hard to explain why the halfbacks persisted with an approach that kept on seeing the Boks caught in possession in their own half. This meant that the Pumas were able to exert pressure like a python constricting its prey.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard had a few good moments when he ran directly at his opposite number, but allround he had a poor, error-ridden game. He fluffed kick-offs, missed touch with penalty kicks, and the loudest cheer of the evening came when home hero Patrick Lambie was introduced amid chants of Lambie’s name from the stands. That was after one of the several Pollard mistakes in restarting.
There were lineout overthrows, dropped passes, and altogether it was just a nightmarish night for the world’s second-ranked team. Whereas the Pumas had a clear and decisive plan, the Boks looked disjointed and at times a bit rattled.
It was hard to explain the mistakes that contributed to their demise. Mistakes such as when Marcell Coetzee knocked a ball on from a restart and presented the Pumas with the attacking scrum that saw them easily outstrip the Bok defensive system by using the short side to Imhoff.
That was in the 27th minute, and it followed an earlier try to Imhoff where he wriggled through near the posts after a build-up which included several missed tackles. So with the match not even half an hour old, the Boks were down 21-6, with those six home points coming from the boot of Pollard.
It was a good thing for the South Africans that Hernandez didn’t have his place-kicking boots on initially. He kicked the conversions for all four Pumas tries, but he missed two kickable penalties early in the game that would have contributed to an even more embarrassing scoreline for the Boks.
The Boks were being thoroughly outplayed at that point and hardly threatened the Pumas’ line, but in the 35th minute big lock Lood de Jager, who produced another influential performance that unfortunately for him was again in vain, powered through the Pumas’ defenders from near the line to dot down near the posts.
If that score though suggested the start of a Bok fightback, the thought was quickly scotched as in the final minutes of the half the Boks conspired to make mistakes that summed up their game and saw the Argentinians add an additional six points.
The first penalty was the product of further poor restart work for the Boks, and then came another Pollard botched kick-off which set up a scrum on the halfway line that realised a penalty that Bosch kicked from long range to make it 27-13 on the halftime hooter.
Those who have seen the Boks fight back often in the past when they have been well behind against Argentina might have thought they’d seen the movie before, but the chances of that trend being continued were dealt a mortal blow when some quick thinking from Hernandez put Imhoff in for his third try not long after the start of the second half.
The Pumas had been awarded a penalty not far from the Bok line. Instead of kicking for posts, as everyone in the stadium, including the Boks, would have been expecting him to, Hernandez took a tap and threw a pass out to the unmarked Imhoff.
The conversion made it 34-13, and although the Boks did score a good try through Willie le Roux after breaking out following the good take of a high ball, by the time Bryan Habana went over for the third home try, the match was long over as a contest. The Pumas were getting ready to celebrate their historic win.
There was a win for the South American Jaguars made up exclusively of Argentine players against the Boks in Bloemfontein in 1982 – the match remembered as the Hugo Porta test – but this was the first time they managed it while wearing the blue and white.
Disturbingly for the Boks, this was the fifth defeat in seven matches since their win over New Zealand at Ellis Park last October, and if one thing is certain, it is that the South Africans won’t be going to the World Cup with a winning habit.
Saturday’s result ensured that they will head to England next month having picked up the wooden spoon in the southern hemisphere tournament for the first time since Argentina joined the Tri-Nations teams to create the Rugby Championship.
Argentina 37 – Tries: Juan Imhoff 3 and Marcelo Bosch; Conversions: Juan-Martin Hernandez; Penalties: Hernandez and Bosch; Drop-goal: Hernandez.
South Africa 25 – Tries: Lood de Jager, Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana; Conversions: Handre Pollard 2; Penalties: Patrick Lambie 2.