Phase two of the Springboks’ rebuilding process starts against Argentina at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The first part went according to plan: a 3-0 series win against France lifting the mood around the team following a nightmare 2016 campaign when the Boks lost eight of the 12 Tests they played.
The new spirit in the Bok camp was tangible during the French series. That brotherhood was in no small part forged by new captain Warren Whiteley, who unfortunately for the Boks will miss the first part of the Rugby Championship with a groin injury.
“The team environment is the biggest difference [from last year]. We are a happy team and that is a team that will focus on the processes. We know we have to take a massive step this weekend,” Springbok coach Allister Coetzee said this week.
Argentina ran the Boks close in South Africa in 2016, before beating them in Salta a week later. But this could be a significant Rugby Championship for Argentina in terms of justifying their participation in this competition.
Los Pumas have been part of this competition for a few years now and they can’t continue to use the excuse that they are finding their feet. They have to start producing consistently, especially after this Test team performed poorly as the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
Uzair Cassiem comes in at No 8 for the Boks to bolster their lineout, after the powerful Jean-Luc du Preez replaced the injured Warren Whiteley in the last Test against France. Tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen will make his first start of the year for South Africa after coming off the bench against the French. He replaces Ruan Dreyer, who has been added to the Bok squad following Frans Malherbe’s neck injury.
Leonardo Senatore was picked at No 8 to replace Juan Manuel Leguizamon, who did not travel to South Africa for personal reasons. Other than that, this Argentina side is a relatively settled combination, with experience and talent all over the park.
Key matchup: Uzair Cassiem vs. Leonardo Senatore
The Cheetahs loose forward is a rather surprising choice at No 8 for the Boks, but one that was clearly thought through. Cassiem was outstanding in his one and only Test against Wales last year, carrying the ball up strongly and was impressive with his work rate. This time, though, he will be expected to play somewhat of a link role, while attacking the wide channels. He will also be a key lineout jumper for the Boks at the tail.
Senatore is a relentless ball carrier who has given the Boks plenty of problems in the past. He also plays a key part for the Argentinian team at the tackle area, as they look to flood the opposition’s breakdown to slow the ball down or turn it over. The veteran will also have a massive job in helping his team keep their discipline, as they tend to get a bit hot under the collar when they play the Boks in the Rugby Championship.
Argentina have won two of their last five games against South Africa after having won none of the previous 19 encounters between the two nations (D1, L18); they’ll also be searching for consecutive wins against the Springboks for the first time.
South Africa are undefeated from their previous four fixtures at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (W3, D1), restricting their opponents to just 10 points per game on average at the venue.
Argentina will be searching for back-to-back wins for the first time since June 2016 after a 45-29 win against Georgia earlier this year.
South Africa head into the game on the back of a three-game series whitewash against France; the last time they won more games in succession was a four-game streak during the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
However, the Springboks have lost seven of their last nine games in the Rugby Championship, including their heaviest home defeat ever in their last such match (15-57 vs. New Zealand).
Port Elizabeth has had some much-needed rain in the week leading up to the Test at the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. But dry conditions are expected for Saturday, with a high of 19°C predicted.