South Africa v Argentina: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Rugby Championship Clash
Daniel Hourcade takes his Argentina line-up to Pretoria on Saturday for the opening round of this year's Rugby Championship, hoping to move on from last year's winless disappointment.
The Pumas are yet to beat South Africa in 17 meetings, having first met in Buenos Aires 21 years ago, the beginning of a one-sided history between the pair thus far.
Heyneke Meyer will be upbeat about his side's chances of surmounting the dominance that New Zealand quite easily exerted over the competition in 2013, but the South Americans can't be overlooked.
We break down some of the key head-to-head encounters likely to take place at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, where injured foes return to action and budding stars get their first chances on the big stage.
1. Cornal Hendricks vs. Manuel Montero
Having recently taken gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Sevens hero Cornal Hendricks returns to the 15-man code this week in flying form.
As an individual asset, the 26-year-old enjoyed a pleasant Super Rugby campaign this year, and despite seeing his Cheetahs side finish just three points off the bottom of the table, his six tries showed off a strong base of skills.
Manuel Montero is something of a lesser-known quantity, having struggled with a crippling knee injury in recent years that would see others relegated to never achieving their finest.
However, Montero is proving he's made of sterner stuff, and after 13 Tests for his national team, the 22-year-old holds a record of close to one try per game, scoring 12 in his career thus far.
The youngster's 6'4" frame houses a surprising turn of acceleration, and the Pumas playmakers may look to use that height to their advantage with the boot, Hendricks facing a big task if this comes down to a matter of might.
2. Willem Alberts vs. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
If Argentina are to have any chance of upsetting the odds in Week 1, it's vital that their few stars of genuine, superstar quality—most of whom are European-based—perform to their optimum.
Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe shoulders that responsibility as much as any other, and with Meyer's loose-forward combination being of a world-class standard, he's got a tough outing ahead.
In a direct head-to-head, Willem Alberts' monstrous frame threatens to disrupt any plans Lobbe might have in weaving his way around the fringes of any set piece, ruck or maul. However, Francois Louw's presence at the breakdown will be a mountainous hurdle of its own.
Speaking to Jon Cardinelli of SA Rugby, the Toulon back-rower highlighted the physical battle as being a battleground he's unafraid of leading up to Saturday:
We have to stop them. At the rucks, at the collisions, everywhere. We have to stop them however we can. It’s always a big contest between these two countries. You have to slow them down, you can’t allow them to build up any momentum.
I understand the mentality of these players, because there are a lot of South Africans at Toulon. Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha, Craig Burden, Joe van Niekerk, Bryan Habana… it doesn’t matter who the player is, the mantra is always the same. It’s a case of “I am going to physically dominate you” We have to meet that physicality.
Fighting words, if ever there were. But with that being said, Alberts has proved to be one of Meyer's talismanic figures over the past 18 months or so for good reason, and one can expect these ball-carrying titans to not beat around the bush in their duel.
3. Jean de Villiers vs. Juan Martin Hernandez
Fears over Jean de Villiers' fitness have been allayed after the Stormers veteran was named at inside centre for the Springboks this week, making his return after several months injured.
The 33-year-old's knee has been a topic of discussion lately, and although South Africa will be wary of keeping their man fit for next year's Rugby World Cup, they also require his impact at its most terrifying right now.
He goes up against a somewhat enigmatic opponent in the form of Juan Martin Hernandez, selected as Hourcade's No. 12 in what makes for an intriguing differential in styles.
De Villiers very much brings the up-front, offload-heavy approach that he's built an entire career on, while Hernandez could be expected to present something more fanciful, adding an extra pair of tactical eyes alongside fly-half Nicolas Sanchez.
It will also be of extreme interest to see what De Villiers has in store for debutant Damian de Allende.
The Stormers team-mates will undoubtedly have a fine understanding of one another in midfield, but any weakness shown by the 22-year-old—starting at outside centre—will be pounced on by the Pumas and certainly affect De Villiers' judgement for the worse.
4. Tendai Mtawarira vs. Ramiro Herrera
And as if De Villiers' return to health wasn't enough for South Africa fans to be excited about, Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira will also make his comeback at loosehead.
Having missed what little there was of the Sharks' Super Rugby playoff run, Meyer's monolith is a welcome addition to the squad, and up against him is a rising star of the Argentinian fold, Ramiro Herrera.
Saturday will see Hourcade hand the 25-year-old his third international cap, maintaining his 100 percent starting record for the team, one of the several Pumas stars who pays their club rugby in the Top 14 with Castres.
One aspect Argentina's pack needs to improve on as a whole is their scrum, having collapsed at the hands of Ireland during their summer internationals, although Herrera has shown better form in France.
Will Mtawarira be the same, shuddering presence that we've known in past Springboks performances? Most probably, but if there were ever a time for Hourcade's men to take advantage of a lack of match fitness, it's now.
5. Handre Pollard vs. Nicolas Sanchez
The youngest member of Meyer's squad is by no surprise also the most promising up-and-comer, but Handre Pollard's first move on a major international stage will be daunting nonetheless.
Beating out the likes of Morne Steyn and Pat Lambie, the 20-year-old will start at fly-half for the hosts on Saturday, and Sanchez has the job of limiting the influence of one of the most tactically shrewd, young minds in the game at present.
Meyer spoke to SuperSport earlier in the week, voicing yet more admiration of the potential superstar he's got on his hands:
He is only 20 years old, but he is a very mature 20 year old. I’ve watched him since he was a 15-year old and he has always impressed me.
What makes him an unbelievable prospect, and he knows there still is a lot of hard work ahead. The great thing about him is – and you don’t find a lot of this – he has an unbelievable attacking game, he is good enough to have a good tactical game. You don’t find that a lot in a number of 10s. Most of them are good tactical fly-halves or they are running fly-halves. Handre is almost too big and tall for 10, and that will always be his challenge, especially with his speed and reaction to kick under pressure.
But he is mentally tough and the other thing that impresses me is his leadership quality. I always believe you have to have a 10 that the players trust, a 10 that the players know is cool-headed and don’t mind if he takes charge of the calls because they trust him. They know he is cool and calm under pressure.
Despite Meyer's words being nothing short of the truth, Sanchez's one advantage is the experience of having played on this kind of occasion more than his opposite man.
It will be up to the 21-times capped No. 10 to ensure Pollard's impact can't be felt at its most extreme, and to do so, he too will have to showcase a broad range of qualities.
Pollard's blend of running and kicking means that Sanchez will be expected to keep a close eye on line speed, judging where and when a high press or a slower mark is needed in order to counter South African movements.
Despite being so young, Pollard is very much the key to the Springboks' potential unlocking of the Pumas defence, and Sanchez will need all the help he can get from his loose forward in ensuring the starlet gets as little time on the ball as possible.
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