Boks banking on young guns to add style to substance
Despite absence of Ulster's Ruan Pienaar, exciting No 10 Handré Pollard adds guile to South African grunt
Francois Hougaard will be the prime beneficiary of Ruan Pienaar's absence from the South African team to play Ireland this Saturday.
Two years after a dominant display from the Ulster player sunk the home side in their last meeting, also in Dublin, the absence of Pienaar's tactical acumen, and goal-kicking, will be a significant blow to his side's chances of maintaining their 100pc record on November tours under Heyneke Meyer.
South Africa yesterday confirmed the lingering extent of Pienaar's knee injury - sustained against the All Blacks during the Rugby Championship - and there are now fears that he could miss the entire four-match tour as the medical staff maintain discussions with his club.
Ulster, who are on the verge of extinction from their European Champions Cup pool, have not seen a minute of action from Pienaar this season and they will not release the player unless they are convinced he is 100pc fit to play.
The likelihood is that South Africa will maintain their tour planning without him; Meyer's men have been learning to live with such loss, but not without profit.
Even though the wily Fourie du Preez has also been a long-term absence with knee trouble, Bulls scrum-half Hougaard has deputised efficiently and effortlessly.
In a more measured way than their catastrophic counterparts, injury may embellish the Boks' commitment to developing a coherent World Cup strategy in northern hemisphere conditions.
While Ireland are assessing medical bulletins on an hourly basis, the Boks are eagerly charting the weather forecasts.
Pienaar has mastered the prevailing wet and windy conditions as a matter of routine but, although the forecast for Saturday remains calm, that has not always been the best description of those hoping for Hougaard to control a game in a similar manner.
As he prepares to face Conor Murray, arguably one of the finest No 9s in world rugby, this area of the battlefield will be a crucial bellwether for either side's hopes of success. "He's been in great form, and a lot of work has been done," said South Africa's studious backs coach Ricardo Loubscher, who pointed to the player's impact during the Rugby Championship, including his role in helping the side inflict just a second defeat in 38 matches upon world champions New Zealand.
"We saw him taking his chances in the Rugby Championship, and he will have another chance to show what he can do on this tour.
"We've spoken about how important game management will be on this tour. The conditions are always going to be a challenge in this part of the world. It's about adapting."
In that seismic Ellis Park defeat of New Zealand, Hougaard was partnered by exciting out-half Handré Pollard (20), whose brace of tries confirmed the many impressions of a burgeoning talent who only this summer was featuring in the U-20 World championship.
Pollard's eviction of Morne Steyn amply illustrates the contemporary breadth of the Springbok vision heading into next year's World Cup; the subtle transformation from a dour, unadventurous kicking game, of which the dull Steyn was a metronomic mimic, into a more expansive style, is clear for all to see.
"It's always been our ambition to play in that style," noted Loubscher. "If you go back to the championship, we played a few games in the wet and it was difficult to play that style.
"But in the last few games, in great conditions, we were quite happy with our performance.
"There are still a few errors we can improve on. From a backline point of view we start from zero, especially on this tour.
"It's all about getting those one per centers right and focus on those key points, our handling, our decision making and trying to get those things right. We have to start from zero again."
Moving from the general to the specific, the coach alluded to the suspicion that the gifted Pollard may face a different threat with the softer pitches and capricious winds on this side of the world.
Steyn and Pienaar were masterful in their kicking dominance; Hougaard and Pollard must bring something to the table in terms of adding a kicking game to their undoubted ball-playing skills.
"If you go back to when he started, he had to get used to the conditions, and then get used to playing at this level," said Loubscher of Pollard.
"I was quite happy with the way he performed. It's a different skill-set and something we enjoy as coaches.
"He's a threat with the ball in hand. He has a great kicking game. He has great vision. That's exactly what I want from a coaching point of view. It's all about opportunities, identifying those spaces and the mis-matches.
"Wet conditions are a big focus point in terms of having to adapt so that will be a focus for us. But he has already experienced such conditions (that IRB World Championship was held in the New Zealand winter) so we are confident about him."
Conor Murray has been impressed. "He is a new player," says Murray of Pollard. "He is playing with a lot of freedom, probably through his age. He is a dangerous player.
"South Africa have those qualities of huge men, big strong runners, really good set-piece. They also have an expansive game plan at the moment. I think that comes from him.
"They are willing to run from deep, try 50-50 plays, or the miracle plays. That just brings an extra threat and that's definitely something we're looking at from Pollard and a number of players within their back-line."
And so the Springboks have become reformed creatures; still the most fearsome gain-line boshers in the business but with added guile to their formidable grunt.
In stark contrast to sides who have bulldozed their way around Dublin 4 in recent times, the visitors seem intent on playing some ball, which could lead to an entertaining evening for those in the sell-out Aviva crowd.
And, if the youngster Pollard is not entrusted with the responsibility of matching up with one of the world's finest out-halves, Jonathan Sexton, then there are other options.
Pat Lambie, whose booming 52-yard penalty sealed that notable All Blacks coup, remains a live contender for the berth, while Steyn has, despite losing some of his lustre, been retained.
"From a backline point of view it's great to have depth," added Loubscher.
"I've very impressed with the way we've gone over the last week and a half, and I'm happy with our performance and the way the guys have played.
"Pat Lambie off the bench has made a huge impact and that's exactly what we expect from our guys off the bench."
No 8 Duane Vermeulen (rib) retains a chance of featuring after training yesterday.
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