South Africa vs. Argentina: Winners and Losers from Rugby Championship
It wasn't the demolition that many expected, but South Africa will be happy nonetheless to have opened their 2014 Rugby Championship campaign with a 13-6 win over Argentina on Saturday.
Heyneke Meyer's men struggled to pose the attacking threat of more recent results, the conditions in Pretoria resulting in the scrappiest of victories.
Daniel Hourcade may have taken a losing bonus point prior to kickoff, but the Pumas at times looked as though they might shock the odds and take the win themselves at Loftus Versfeld.
Both teams will take a variety of lessons from the fixture, having both the good and bad to take note of before next week's matchups, the biggest of which are discussed ahead.
Loser: Damp Conditions Make for Ugly South Africa Win
Just as the weather was a mitigating factor in New Zealand's draw against Australia earlier in the day, swirling conditions in Pretoria made for a difficult afternoon's work.
The players did their best to give an expansive display involving both sets of backs, but there was only so much handling would allow for in the wet of Loftus Versfeld.
As such, a host of great opportunities went begging as either side encroached upon enemy territory, Ruan Pienaar's first-minute score being among the cleanest passages of passing play that was seen in the 80 minutes.
In the end, both players and fans alike suffered in terms of entertainment value, and it was left to the boots of Handre Pollard and Nicolas Sanchez to do most of the damage.
Winner: Willie le Roux Cementing His Spot As World's In-Form Fullback
The likes of Israel Folau, Ben Smith, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny will argue the point, but Willie le Roux's very steady growth as the world's finest fullback went undeterred Saturday.
The Cheetahs may have endured great pain for much of the 2014 Super Rugby season, but their No. 15 was always a source of inspiration, and the same can be said for his international form.
The trickster's most enamouring factor remains his precision from the boot, and whether playing the long game for territory or when taking the ball into his stride at pace, his dexterity is a thing of beauty at times.
Le Roux's positioning and security under the high ball have also improved superbly, and while Argentina probed away at his 22 from deep, there wasn't many a troubled patch in sight, misplaced chips only really coming about in the final stages.
Even in the poor setting, Le Roux managed to round off his outing with 77 metres gained from 12 attempted runs, making three turnovers and three tackles in the process.
Loser: Handre Pollard Growing Pains Evident Among the Positives
The stage was set for wunderkind Handre Pollard to have such an impact in what was just his second start for the Springboks on Saturday, but it wasn't meant to be as Argentina encountered a relatively tame display from the playmaker.
At 20 years old, it's completely understandable that the Bulls prospect isn't the talismanic performer Meyer hopes he'll become in time, but Pretoria bore witness to a lacklustre showing.
A high Pumas line put the pressure on the youngster, whose speed, or lack thereof, failed to execute quick ball at times, seeing several kick attempts blocked as a result.
In the end, Pollard was whipped off in favour of the more experienced Morne Steyn after just 45 minutes—his only contributions being a penalty and a conversion—but there were glimpses of defensive promise.
Winner: Hourcade's Scrum Shows Promise with Full-Strength Squad
South Africa can be a difficult place for opposition packs to travel based on reputation alone, and just as the Sharks held great renown in their set piece for much of this year's Super Rugby season, so too do Meyer's men have a habit to be fierce in this aspect.
But Argentina, led by captain Agustin Creevy, showed encouraging signs that their own scrum can be a solid foundation to develop, something that wasn't so clear during their summer Tests against Ireland.
Then, a weakened Hourcade line-up was dominated at the set piece, but with their European-based stars back in the mix, the Pumas managed to go toe-to-toe with one of the world's best and come out relatively unscathed.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was defending their own feed the South Americans had issues with. But by halftime, Argentina had turned possession into their own three times, equivalent to half the Springboks' scrums at that stage.
Argentina also managed to win 16 of their 19 line-out throws, stealing three of South Africa's 18 put-ins, making for an altogether impressive outing for the forward ranks.
Ramiro Herrera, Marcos Ayerza and Creevy, the former of whom is still a fresh face on the international scene, held their own against one of the strongest front rows in the sport, giving their coach some reason for hope despite the result.
Loser: Pumas' Lack of a Clinical Claw Remains a Point of Learning
It's been the story for much of their involvement in first-tier rugby, but again on Saturday, Argentina exposed the absence of clinical finishing that has shown up before in their play.
It's one of the main factors that's prevented the side from being able to claim a Rugby Championship victory in 13 attempts now, and although the weather in South Africa certainly didn't help, cooler heads are needed in high-pressure circumstances.
For ingenuity and off-the-cuff running, the Pumas are often among the most inspiring sides to watch, their backs possessing the ability to create something-from-nothing opportunities almost at will against lesser opponents.
However, the likes of Manuel Montero and Horacio Agulla won't see their try counts rise against the Rugby Championship big guns until the finishing touches are evident, something they certainly have the potential for if club form is any indicator.
Against such strong opposition, it's obvious that ventures into enemy territory will be fewer in number, and on Saturday, the Pumas made errors in six of their seven trips into the South African 22.
The most agonising moment came in the 75th minute when a pick-and-drive tactic was quickly disassembled by the Springboks defence, a score that, if converted, would have tied the scores at 13-13.
If Hourcade's men are ever to subvert the minnow stereotype they've developed among the Southern Hemisphere's giants, this remains a key aspect in need of addressing as far as this weekend's loss is concerned.
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