It was by doing what they failed to do against Japan a week earlier that the Springboks managed with some comfort to avoid falling over the precipice they had been teetering all week. With their 46-6 win over Samoa at Villa Park in Birmingham on Saturday evening, they served notice that they remain a big World Cup threat.
Apart from a 10 minute period in the first quarter when the Samoans did appear to have some momentum, the South Africans were seldom challenged as they properly executed a game plan that a week ago in Brighton against Japan was left behind in the planning room.
The strong Bok performance netted six tries to clinch an important bonus point to go with the four points for the win. With two banked in the defeat to Japan last Saturday, it is now looking a lot less likely that the Boks will be kept from advancing to the playoff phase in London next month.
The first few minutes summed up the Boks’ intent.
Big lock Eben Etzebeth flew into the first contact and drove the Samoans back, a penalty was awarded which Handre Pollard kicked to give them a 3-0 lead, and then they started putting together the sequences that put them on the road to victory.
It could probably be summed up as “drive, maul, box kick, drive, maul and box kick again”.
No wonder the crowd at one stage early in the second half broke out into the English rugby anthem, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The Boks were playing the type of rugby perfected by the English in their year of World Cup triumph, 2003.
Of course the Boks have been known for their highly effective suffocation tactics in the past.
If you wanted to know what coach Heyneke Meyer meant when he referred to the need for South African rugby to return to its traditional strength, you need not look any further than this game.
Unlike in Brighton, this was not a Bok team playing another country at their game, but a South African doing what it takes to get the job done by just not allowing the opposing team to get out of their half.
There were several big contributors to a win that puts the Boks right back into the Pool B race as they head to next week’s clash with Scotland in Newcastle.
And let it be said at this time when we might still be lamenting the injury that is keeping the crucial component to Saturday’s game-plan, Willem Alberts, on the sidelines, that no-one was more influential than Schalk Burger.
The blindside flank did a great job of replicating what Alberts brings with the sheer force with which he carried the ball up, often breaching the gainline by taking several Samoan tacklers with him. He’s played much of his rugby for the Boks this year at No 8, but in this game he reminded us of what he can bring as a flank.
It was vintage Burger, and in fact a throw-back to last year’s excellent match-winning effort against England at Twickenham.
Pollard, who did manage the game well from flyhalf, won the official man of the match award, but I’d have given it to Burger.
He capped his performance by scoring the third Bok try as he powered his way over from close range after 58 minutes to put the Boks out of sight of the Samoans.
Duane Vermeulen, after his long layoff, was understandably a bit quiet by his standards, although he did contribute his share of donkey work to the Bok superiority at forward that laid the platform for this win, while Francois Louw is regaining his sharpness and influence as he too continues his comeback.
The best back, until he was replaced after appearing to hobble a bit in the middle stages of the match, was inside centre Damian de Allende.
The Stormers player exposed the error of last week’s selection by being a massive presence. Skipper Jean de Villiers got through the game okay until he was replaced beyond the 70 mark, but both De Allende and Jesse Kriel still look like they’ve got much more presence than he has on attack.
Unless De Villiers quickly rediscovers his Mojo, coach Meyer may still face a tough decision going forward.
In other areas there is less of a dilemma. Fourie du Preez made a huge difference at scrumhalf with his snappy play and decision making, while JP Pietersen declared his intention to start sparkling after a relative quiet period for him by scoring a hat-trick of tries.
Bryan Habana, who has also been quiet recently, also looked more of a threat this time, and scored the last Bok try.
The first Pietersen try effectively swung the match the Boks’ way after Samoa had recovered from the early hits of the bristling Boks to put together some threatening passages of play.
Flyhalf Mike Stanley kicked two penalties to give the Samoans a 6-3 lead after 10 minutes and it started to look a bit ominous for the Boks when the islanders were building up inside the Bok half.
Another score the would have put the Boks under immense pressure given the importance of the game, but in working to the left the Samoans had a pass intercepted by Pietersen, who galloped 55 metres for the try.
One of the things that the Boks got right this week that they didn’t last week was the need to build an innings, and their decision to kick for posts rather than to the touchline in the first half paid off by them getting more than seven points ahead on the scoreboard for the first time at this World Cup as two Pollard kicks made it 14-6, a lead of eight, after 23 minutes.
By then the Boks were starting to camp in Samoan territory and the slow poison of their physical superiority was starting to take effect, and although Samoa kept their line intact, another Pollard penalty stretched the lead to 11, at 17-6, by the time halftime arrived.
With a lead of 11, the Boks had earned the right to kick for touch rather than to posts from penalties, and the first one they received in the second half saw them score an excellent try rounded off by Pietersen.
The Boks attacked from close, using a mixture of forward drives and passing and running before the ball went through De Villiers’s hands across the Samoan defence and the Sharks wing dotted down in the corner.
Burger’s try effectively ensured there would be no possible comeback for Samoa, and then it was substitute hooker Schalk Brits who dotted down for the bonus-point fourth try as the Bok pack surged over the line.
The Boks have laid a foundation and they have something to work with now, but it would be wrong to think that everything was perfect.
A win like this over Samoa wouldn’t have been celebrated as joyously as it was by the players and the crowd on Saturday had it not been for the hole that they had dug themselves into by losing to Japan.
The scrumming wasn’t always perfect, the nothing chip kicks that the Samoans failed to punish might be punished by better teams, and Pollard, although he did kick 14 points, missed a few shots at posts that perhaps he should have slotted. But after the week that the Boks have had, it was a response that exceeded expectations.
They live to fight another day, and that’s what’s important.
South Africa 46 – Tries: JP Pietersen 3, Schalk Burger, Schalk Brits and Bryan Habana; Conversions: Handre Pollard and Patrick Lambie; Penaties: Handre Pollard 4.
Samoa 6 – Penalties: Mike Stanley 2.