In this week’s exclusive column for Planet Rugby, former Springbok, Stormers and Saracens prop Cobus Visagie looks ahead to the week’s big World Cup clashes.
Why the big hype?
Somewhere in our subconscious rugby universe, we all love the way the Pacific Islanders play their rugby. Some of the best friendships I have built up in my time playing for Saracens and the Barbarians were with Fijian, Samoan and Tongan team-mates. Their warmth and humility off the field and their fierce warrior spirits on it make them special team-mates, as well as crowd favourites across the globe.
That being said, the hype about the game on Friday between South Africa and Samoa is being blown out of all proportion. I was just as excited about their pre-tournament victory over an Australian team minus many of their top players. We all want Samoa and the other South Pacific teams to do well and see them eclipse the performance of Fiji in 2007, but it is now clear that there is a big difference between Australia A and B.
Manu Samoa is a much improved outfit and it is mainly their structure, kicking game and defence that has improved. Although their set piece has improved significantly, it will be the tight phases where South Africa will exploit them on Friday. The smallest margin of victory for South Africa in the history of the teams was 35-8 in Johannesburg, shortly before the Springboks became World Champions in 2007.
As it should be in a team that is on the up, the Springboks are in the healthy position where there is now fierce competition in a number of positions that were formerly a foregone conclusion on the team sheet. A lot of the positions are still up for grabs and that is why I predict an easy win for the Boks on Friday.
One area of healthy rivalry is the starting Sharks front row of the Beast and the Du Plessis brothers, who I predict will be in a foul mood to prove to the South African management they need to be the starting front row for the final stages of the tournament.
One of the areas where I think South Africa is the most vulnerable is at tighthead prop, if Jannie du Plessis gets injured and CJ van der Linde has to start. Although CJ probably had his best scrum performance in eight years against the woeful Namibian scrum, he is just not in Jannie’s league and he has serious technical issues with his binding under pressure. Such a problem could cause major issues for South Africa in the scrum if he had to start against Australia or the All Blacks. CJ can carry the ball, but you can ask anyone who has followed his time at Leinster and they will confirm that once his technical issues were found out by the opposition and referees in the Celtic league, he was under a lot of pressure.
For some time now I have been of the opinion that South Africa lacked in-form players with the X-factor compared to Australia and New Zealand, but it seems the tide has turned with the recent performances of Francois Hougaard, Francois Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis and Heinrich Brussow. Even some old stalwarts like Danie Rossouw, Schalk Burger and Jacques Fourie are hitting form again and look world class. The problem is that Hougaard, du Plessis and Rossouw are at this stage probably pencilled in on the bench for the quarter-finals.
I believe the best strategy will be to start with these players and create the maximum impact in the first half of a game. The Springboks are good frontrunners and with these players we have the best chance of scoring tries and getting ahead of the opposition. Then the experienced hands like Fourie du Preez, John Smit and Bakkies can come on the field and close out the game. This is obviously against current policy, but definitely the best utilisation of players who are in form and who can create something out of nothing. Surely if your in-form players spend the most time on the pitch, you will perform better as a unit and over time.
Although the consultant role of Eddie Jones was widely publicised during the 2007 World Cup and hailed a strategic stroke of genius by Jake White, Rassie Erasmus’ contribution has not really been mentioned in the international media so far. He is one of the best rugby brains that has crossed my path in my professional and international career and he has the exact skill set that was missing in the Springbok management. He is a true student of the game and a man that can spend hours analysing driving mauls and defensive strategies. He has the type of personality that can change opinions and - depending on how much say he has on the selection - I believe he is the only man that can change the course of the ship. If South Africa go all the way in the tournament and successfully defend the William Webb Ellis trophy, more credit should go to Rassie than was ever showered on Eddie for the 2007 victory. The Springboks have the players in their squad to defend the trophy successfully, but team selection and the ability of the management to make hard choices on players who are not in form, will determine the final outcome.
The other much anticipated game in the final days of the pool stages is the age-old rivalry between England and Scotland. It is obviously a very important game in the context of the tournament and the possible exit of Scotland, but the teams are at completely different levels.
Although Andy Robinson has done an exceptional job building up the Scottish team over the last four years, ten seconds of madness in their defence will probably cost them a place in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history. Again I feel it is going to be a complete non-event that has been completely over analysed. England is the far superior team in their set piece and has a lot of X-factor in their back-line, except for Wilkinson and Tindall, who probably need to balance the adventurous approach of the rest of the back-line with typical English consistency and conservatism.
So we are guaranteed a North v South final!
Visagie earned 29 caps for his country and was the cornerstone of the Springbok team that reached the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. He earned the nickname “Drieman”, or ‘three man’, because he played number 3 and scrummed like 3 men. He won four Currie Cups with Western Province and earned 43 Super 12 caps with the Stormers. In 2003 Visagie moved to London to join Saracens for whom he played in 121 games and was voted in the Premiership Team of the Season for three consecutive years.