Springboks hold out hopes of stealing title in finale
For the Springboks, a shot at the title. For the Pumas, a shot at their own piece of history.
South Africa has a chance of stealing the Rugby Championship in the final game of an ultra-tight tournament against Argentina on Saturday, although it’ll likely require way more than just a regulation win for the Boks in Durban.
Their hopes of adding a southern hemisphere crown to a Lions series victory last year depend on old rival New Zealand.
The All Blacks lead the Rugby Championship from South Africa on points difference and face Australia in their final-round game earlier the same day at the Eden Park fortress where New Zealand hasn’t lost since 1994, when rugby was still in its amateur era.
The Springboks will have about six hours after the end of the All Blacks-Wallabies to digest what they need to do. If New Zealand wins with a bonus point it could leave the world champions needing a thumping victory over the Pumas at Kings Park to claw back the points difference and snatch the title.
“It is all or nothing for us this week, and we have a team with several players who have won the Rugby World Cup and the British and Irish Lions series,” Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber said. “So they know it will take nothing less than a quality 80-minute effort to win this match and the competition.”
Five points — a bonus-point win — separates top from bottom in the championship standings ahead of the final weekend and all four teams have mathematical chances of being crowned champions.
While New Zealand are expected to beat Australia, a Wallaby surprise in Auckland would even put last-placed Argentina back in the frame to claim its first Rugby Championship title, although it would need to rack up the points against South Africa.
That’s an outside possibility, and something Pumas coach Michael Cheika wasn’t really entertaining in Durban.
Aussie Cheika, the former Australia coach, said he would obviously be rooting for the Wallabies in front of the TV in South Africa in the morning. But he saw his new team’s final game of this championship in its own right as a chance to lay down another mark for Argentina rugby.
The Pumas have pushed on to new heights this season by recording a dominant home win over Australia and stunning the All Blacks in New Zealand. Consistency has been a problem again and from there Argentina lost a second game in New Zealand 53-3 and went down 36-20 to South Africa at home last weekend.
But victory in Durban this Saturday would still give the Pumas wins over all three southern hemisphere powers for the first time in the same Rugby Championship.
It’s also a chance to beat the World Cup holder on its home patch.
“I don’t want to go bigger picture here, I just want to say here’s an opportunity for us in Durban against the world champions, a chance to take,” Cheika said. “You gotta go there and try and take it.”
Cheika evoked the spirit of 2015, when Argentina beat South Africa in Durban for their first win over the Springboks, by recalling wing Juan Imhoff for Saturday in one of two changes to the starters. Imhoff scored a hat trick of tries in that memorable Pumas performance seven years ago.
South Africa is down to its fourth-choice flyhalf after losing Handré Pollard and stand-in Damian Willemse to injury. Elton Jantjies, normally the No. 2 to Pollard, was sent home from the squad after allegations he was involved in an extramarital affair with the team dietician. Jantjies and the dietician have denied it, but the Springboks didn’t need the distraction.
That’s left Frans Steyn, the 35-year-old veteran, to start in the Springboks No. 10 jersey in the tournament finale and Faf de Klerk to cover both scrumhalf and flyhalf as one of just two backs on the bench.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Canan Moodie, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Frans Steyn, Jaden Hendrikse; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Duane Vermeulen, Kwagga Smith, Faf de Klerk, Kurt-Lee Arendse.
Argentina: Juan Cruz Mallia, Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Juan Imhoff, Santiago Carreras, Gonzalo Bertranou; Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Tomas Lavanini, Matias Alemanno, Eduardo Bello, Julian Montoya (captain), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Reserves: Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas, Joel Sclavi, Guido Petti, Pedro Rubiolo, Tomas Cubelli, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Bautista Delguy.
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