Rosko Specman (c) made his Test debut for South Africa against Georgia
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Siya Kolisi summed it up afterwards: "Far from perfect, but good to be back." As to be expected given South Africa hadn’t played a Test match in over 600 days since winning the Rugby World Cup, some parts of their return were enjoyable, while others still need some fine-tuning after a 40-9 victory.
The Springboks had a three-week training camp in Bloemfontein and another week in Johannesburg, so plenty of time to work on defending the restart. But they missed Tedo Abzhandadze’s opening kickoff, sailing over the pod lifting Franco Mostert, in the earliest sign that there were a few cobwebs to get rid of.
Otherwise in a first half where Georgia held the lead at 5-9 up until the 35th minute, there were a few signs that the Springboks were still feeling their way back into competitive action; a Willie le Roux chip going straight into touch (after a nice catch and run), Pieter-Steph du Toit bouncing off two Georgian tacklers only to then fail to link up with a supporting Cobus Reinach. And the scrum too struggled at times in the earlier stages.
South Africa finished the first half having conceded seven penalties, inaccurate at times at the breakdown and straying offside – notably Du Toit. But that figure dropped to only four penalties conceded after half-time as South Africa gained control.
The fact that South Africa turned over more possession than Georgia shouldn’t come as a surprise either given their lack of action, with 13 turnovers to Georgia’s eight, including six handling errors in the first half. Frans Steyn in particular struggled in that opening 40 minutes, when the Springboks’ attacked looked disorganised.
But the second half was another story, with Pollard notably sharper, including a nice grubber in the build-up to Herschel Jantjies try. Du Toit, famed anyway for his work-rate, finished the contest with 12 carries (to go with his 11 tackles).
Head coach Jacques Nienaber and SA’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, the latter running the water on at Loftus, can’t have grumbled too much with scoring six tries. But they’ll equally be looking for more cohesion over 80 minutes next Friday when they face Georgia for a second time.
Life in Test rugby couldn’t have started better for Aphelele Fassi, whose hot form for the Sharks since the Rugby World Cup unsurprisingly led to a Springboks call-up.
Fassi is comfortable at full-back which should keep Le Roux honest, but his debut try owed a debt to some great build-up work from Du Toit.
Eben Etzebeth (4) comes up with a nice pass to help get the move going, but Du Toit’s delay, causing Georgia full-back Davit Niniashvili to hesitate just for a second before Du Toit puts Fassi away, is spot on.
Both Fassi and Specman had their moments but would have benefited from some better build-up play in midfield and Specman in particular felt underused in attack, the former sevens player finishing with only five touches and doing his best to beat defenders in tight pockets, while Fassi had seven runs.
South Africa notably used Kolisi and Du Toit frequently out in the wider channels – see above for Du Toit setting up Fassi – which will be something for the Lions to monitor.
Did Fassi or Specman do enough to displace Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe from the Springboks’ starting XV for the first Test? Probably not. And with S’bu Nkosi in the squad as well, there’s plenty of competition out wide. Fassi can certainly keep the pressure on Le Roux, whose good moments just about outweighed the bad ones against Georgia.
Cover at No 8
It’s the one area of doubt in South Africa’s first-choice XV given the concern over Duane Vermeulen’s fitness, after he underwent ankle surgery a few weeks back. The expectation is that Vermeulen will return at some point during the tour, but a back-up is required.
Not that replacing Vermeulen is easy – he was the man of the match in the World Cup final after all – and the frontrunner for now is Kwagga Smith, who is coming off a full season playing in that position in Japan for Yamaha Júbilo.
There’s an obvious size disparity between Vermeulen and Smith, another former sevens player, with Vermeulen five inches taller and over 20 kilograms heavier, which means you get a different type of ball-carrier – less of a battering ram, more of a hot stepper, for example.
You’re also likely to see more carries like this, with Smith getting some extra ballast behind this carry into contact from Kolisi (which earned South Africa a breakdown penalty).
Smith was part of the World Cup squad, the coaching staff know him well, and clearly he’s a good alternative in that position. He also did score a try with a quick burst off the base of the scrum as it wheeled to the left, shutting off Georgia’s back row and giving Smith the angle he needed for a run to the line. But, what if Jasper Wiese is a better fit?
The Leicester Tigers No 8 had an enormous first season in the Premiership, playing well enough to be nominated for the player of the season award.
At Loftus, Wiese made his Test debut off the bench. He’s closer to Vermeulen size wise, just an inch shorter and about seven kilograms lighter, but offers real power. He came up with one thumping tackle after coming in the second half, almost driving a Georgian attacker back over Georgia’s try line. Wiese also averaged more metres per carry during his time on the field than Smith – 4.4 to 3.5 – despite playing only 20 minutes.
There was enough evidence during his cameo to suggest that Wiese should get a start against Georgia.
The set-piece was South Africa’s calling card during the Rugby World Cup and they looked excellent against Georgia as the game wore on – when Frans Malherbe was on the field.
The Stormers tighthead must have been relishing the scrummaging threat Georgia pose and he dominated, coming on briefly in the first half for Trevor Nyakane and making an instant impact. He mashes up Guram Gogichashvili here (on the near side)
Ox Nche, the starting loosehead, had some fine touches in the loose particularly as a first receiver, and should be the back-up to Steven Kitshoff in the Test series.
But there’s little reason to deviate from the likely starting unit of Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Malherbe – the three Stormers, although Mbonambi is about to join the Sharks – with Nche, Malcolm Marx and one of Vincent Koch or Nyanake coming off the bench. But, Malherbe starting is imperative. If he can do that to Georgia’s scrum, he can cause the Lions problems as well.
Kolisi stressed afterwards that getting the set-piece right was the priority for this Test, and South Africa certainly did that in the second half. The driving maul in particular looked imposing.