Pack flexes muscles as Boks tick the boxes
As a warm-up for the series against the British and Irish Lions, which is now just three weeks away, it would have been just what Nienaber should have been looking for. The time it took for the team to find their rhythm entirely predictable and the very reason why the two games against the world’s 12th-ranked team were organised in the first place.
The Boks scored six tries without reply but they appeared to tick most boxes as, after some initial teething problems, the much-vaunted home pack laid the foundation that was hoped for while at the same time the physical Georgians gave them a proper workout.
The indefatigable 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit was very much in the vanguard, as he always is for both franchise and country, although the man who might remember this game the longest will be the young debutant wing, Aphelele Fassi.
With the Boks behind 3-0 to a Tedo Abzhandadze penalty after an untidy start, which began with them making a mess of fielding the kick-off, Fassi was set free down the left touchline by a good straightening pass from the aforementioned Du Toit with just four minutes of a fledgling International career under his belt.
GOOD THAT GEORGIA DIDN’T LIE DOWN
Perhaps that early score duped the South Africans into thinking it would be an easy night, or into thinking they should speed everything up in a quest for a cricket-score result, for although they always dominated the territory and possession battle, they struggled to make much headway for the next half an hour.
But if the Georgians had just rolled over and played dead after Fassi’s early try, it wouldn’t have suited the Boks. While it might seem like obtuse logic, this time it would make perfect sense to suggest that the South African coaches would have been pleased with the way the visitors forced some frustration into the Bok play.
It meant they made mistakes that will keep their feet firmly rooted to the ground and keep them earnest in training for the much bigger tests that lie ahead. In particular they were guilty of poor discipline and that saw them give away a slew of penalties that allowed the Georgians to retake the lead 6-5 after 18 minutes through another penalty and the Georgian flyhalf added another three points six minutes after that to make it 9-5.
At that point the Boks were struggling with their timing in the scrums and struggling to co-ordinate their game, while the seven penalties conceded in the first half will give the coaches something to work on between now and the second test in Johannesburg next week.
OPPONENTS NOT COWED BY BOK PHYSICALITY
One thing about the Georgians is that they don’t get cowed by physically. While you get the impression sometimes that even the best teams are sometimes a bit stunned by the physicality of the Bok approach, with the Georgian players you got the impression that they relished the testosterone battle as if they had been waiting for it their entire lives.
That will also be something the Bok coaches would have been pleased about. One thing they do need as a team before playing the Lions is a few good physical hit-outs. While the Georgians were no match for them in terms of class and efficiency, they got that, with the Georgians even winning the first scrum penalty.
But if anyone thinks any of this rust was unexpected, they’ve been living in Cloud Cuckooland. While the intent of 20 months ago has been carried through the pandemic-driven hiatus from international rugby by the South African players, it would be asking a lot for them to just pick up from where they left off in the World Cup final against England.
NEED TO SHARPEN UP IN NEXT TWO WEEKS
Still, with the Lions series now just 80 minutes of playing time away for most of the players and perhaps closer to 160 for those who might also be involved in the SA A game against the Lions, the number of basic errors was disturbing. The Boks are going to have to sharpen up quickly if they are not to find themselves playing catch-up after the first test in Cape Town on 24 July.
The longer the game endured, the more obvious it was that it would go according to the expected script. While the Boks trailed until the 35th minute, there was never really any danger of something calamitous transpiring at the start of this campaign like happened in Brighton at the hands of Japan at the start of the 2015 World Cup.
They just needed to wear the Georgians down and start to synch their game, and that started to happen in the last 10 minutes of the half. It needs to be noted though that both the Bok tries that propelled them from a four-point deficit into a 19-9 halftime lead came when the Georgians were down a man after flanker Beka Saginadze was sinbinned for cynical play as the Bok forwards drove at the line.
Bongi Mbonambi dotted down off the driving maul off the lineout that was set off the penalty that accompanied Saginadze’s banishment. Then earlier try-scorer Fassi featured as a try creator as Jesse Kriel straightened the line to give him the modicum of room he needed to pivot down the left touchline and chip the ball inside for scrumhalf Cobus Reinach to gather and go over for the third try.
PACK’S DOMINANCE BECAME PROGRESSIVELY MORE COMPLETE
The halftime stats reflected the territory and possession dominance you’d have expected from the Boks against these opponents, and the three tries were about par with the expectations too. Given the ascendancy they had achieved, you might have expected them to keep the scoreboard moving immediately from the restart, but the Georgians were still determined to remain in the game physically and it took the Boks until the 54th minute before they added to their score again when Kwagga Smith waltzed over from a strong scrumming effort under the Georgian posts.
By then the Bok scrum was completely dominant and, significantly, that dominance became even more obvious once the reserve front row of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe, who played much of the World Cup final win against England together as a unit, came onto the field.
Indeed, it was when Malherbe came on in the first half while Trevor Nyakane was off the field following a head-first tackle that led to him requiring a medical assessment, that the gears really started to shift in the scrums. Malherbe displayed some up-and-down form at franchise and provincial level for much of the return-to-play season, but in this game the man who wore the No 3 at Yokohama International Stadium on 2 November 2019 made a statement.
South Africa 40 –
Tries: Aphelele Fassi, Bongi Mbonambi, Cobus Reinach, Kwagga Smith, Herschel Jantjies and Malcolm Marx.
Conversions: Handre Pollard 4 and Elton Jantjies
Georgia 9 –
Penalties: Tedo Abzhandadze 3.