All credit to South Africa and Argentina. Nobody would have blamed them if they had promoted their reserves and gone through the motions for the grandly titled bronze final of the Rugby World Cup on Friday.
Instead, the Springboks selected their strongest possible lineup, and the Pumas made nine changes, four of them enforced by injuries and the rest mindful of a five-day turnaround — one day less than South Africa.
Boks coach Heyneke Meyer dismissed the consolation playoff immediately after their 20-18 semifinal loss to New Zealand last weekend, but changed his mind because he didn’t want to devalue the Springboks jersey, or drop his standards.
“It is the toughest week to go in, when your hopes and dreams are shattered, and then you have to go out and put in a quality performance,” he said. “You need that mental toughness.”
Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was the only regular not picked after he suffered a swollen cheekbone and broken tooth in the semifinal. Ruan Pienaar replaces du Preez, and 38-year-old Victor Matfield starts in place of Lood de Jager for the 127th and final test of his career. Matfield also takes over the captaincy from du Preez, whose test career is now over.
It was noticeable in comments by the Springboks that they put a priority on giving the likes of Matfield and Schalk Burger a fitting send-off and making their country proud, rather than finishing third.
Typical was Matfield’s second-row partner Eben Etzebeth: “For us it has been the toughest week of our lives. It is my (24th) birthday (Thursday) and I don’t feel like celebrating it. We need to get up for it and we’ll be doing it for the Springbok shirt. We’ll go out and do it for South Africa.”
Only six Pumas starters from the 29-15 semifinal loss to Australia will start at the Olympic Stadium: Props Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera, lock Tomas Lavanini, flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez, and winger Santiago Cordero.
Injured out of contention were captain and hooker Agustin Creevy (torn hamstring), inside centre Juan Martin Hernandez (ribs), winger Juan Imhoff (concussion), and fullback Joaquin Tuculet (shoulder). All will be badly missed.
Sanchez, the tournament’s leading point-scorer with 89, will lead the Pumas for the first time.
The Pumas have beaten Boks only once, in August in Durban. The Springboks took the return match in Buenos Aires, their 19th win in 21 contests.
SA won its only third-place match in 1999, against New Zealand, and Argentina did, too, in 2007, thrashing host France.
Ayerza was one of five survivors from that 2007 match, and was struggling to accept this might be his last outing for the Pumas. Players have to be in Super Rugby from next year to be considered for the national team. Fernandez Lobbe and winger Horacio Agulla also find themselves on the wrong side of the rule.
Ayerza, arguably the world’s best loosehead, hoped the rule will change one day, because by the next Rugby World Cup in Japan he will be 36, “which is not an unusual age for a prop.”
There will also be a third-place match in 2019, World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said.
“This is a great fixture,” he insisted. “Teams over the years have fought very hard to position themselves as the third best side.”
Did they have a choice?
It kicks-off at 10pm this evening.
Meanwhile, New Zealand will take on Australia in the Webb Ellis Cup finale on Saturday.