An emphatic win in the opening match gave the newcomers the confidence they needed and allowed the team to settle. The struggle for most of the way in the second provided the wake-up call and hard game they needed before the start of the Castle Rugby Championship in August, plus a few pointers on where the weak points may be.
And now comes a finale that looks perfectly scripted, with the one team the Boks haven’t played so far, Samoa, being the opponents in the decider at Loftus on Saturday. More than that, the recent Samoa/South Africa history has been just edgy enough for this game to mean something more than just a gentle warm-up to the real deal that comes into view in a few weeks.
The South Africans and Samoans have been the best teams by some distance. Scotland were good, brave and gutsy in Nelspruit last week, and may well have won had their lock not been yellow carded early in the second half. But they were well beaten by Samoa the week before, and Samoa then went on to trounce Italy.
The islanders thus have the confidence on Saturday of going into the game with two Six Nations scalps picked up seven days apart. When has that happened before for them? They’re a physical, strong unit, who may have to up their first phase performance if their opening display against Scotland is anything to go by, and if they get enough ball to play with, they should severely test a South African defensive system that wasn’t always strong enough last week.
If the Boks have pace to burn out wide, then this time so do their opponents, with Alesana Tuilagi showing in the Kings Park match a fortnight ago just how dangerous he can be when given the opportunity. And last week the forwards came to the party. JJ Engelbrecht, for one, made some defensive errors at Mbombela Stadium, and Willie le Roux was ordinary in the first half, so there are certainly improvements to be made at the back.
But it will be at forward where the most significant step up from last week will be necessary from the hosts. The aggression at the breakdown that was lacking against Scotland needs to return, and the accuracy in the ball scavenging should be upped a few levels by the return of Francois Louw.
The debate about who should be the Bath player’s back-up will continue, but what is not up for debate is his value to the side. After being on the outer at the start of the last international season, he now plays a crucial role in the Bok mix.
It’s how hard the Boks hit the Samoans in the collisions, however, that will determine whether they win this one easily or whether, like last week, they are made to struggle to the last minutes of the game before being certain.
Willem Alberts, if he is fit, should make a massive difference to both that aspect of the game and the all-important ability to breach the opposition gainline and get that crucial momentum, something that was absent for most of the way against Scotland. If he is not fit, and fails his fitness test then the game might lose just a bit of relevance for the Boks, as it is questionable how much Heyneke Meyer would benefit from seeing Siya Kolisi play another game at No 7.
The Stormers player was good last week, but he is not the hulking ball carrying blindside flank that Meyer goes for and his game-plan probably needs, and if Alberts was to join Arno Botha by spending a lengthy stint on the sidelines, this is an area where the Boks may struggle.
However the other fitness test to be held poses a more interesting question – we all know what Jean de Villiers can do, and what he brings as a captain, so might the Boks not gain more out of having him absent on Saturday? The thought of having Adriaan Strauss get some captaincy experience and Jan Serfontein get a full game alongside his Bulls partner Engelbrecht is an enticing one.
After all, although these series games are test matches, this is just really the warm-up phase to the season. Although he has kept the core of his team together now over three matches, Meyer has spread the net if you look at the number of new players that have been blooded. It will happen by accident, like some of the other inclusions have, but a good win with an alternative inside centre and captain might prove a perfect confidence booster for what lies ahead as it will say something about the available depth.
The Boks already have a lot to gain from Saturday, but going in without De Villiers might give them even more. It will make it tougher, but then that’s the point.
Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana, JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers (captain)/Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Pierre Spies, Willem Alberts/Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Flip van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Juandre Kruger, Siya Kolisi/Marcell Coetzee, Piet van Zyl, Pat Lambie, Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.
James So’oialo, Alapti Leiua, Paul Williams (capt), Johnny Leota, Alesana Tuilagi, Tusi Pisi, Jeremy Su’a, Taiasina Tuifu’a, Jack Lam, Ofisa Treviranus, Daniel Leo, Filo Paulo, Census Johnston, Ole Avei, Sakaria Taulafo. Replacements: Ti’I Paulo, Logovi’i Mulipola, James Johnston, Kane Thompson, Junior Pluleuligaga, Brando Va’aulu, Seilala Mapusua, Alafoti Fa’osiliva.