Pieter-Steph du Toit made the biggest individual statement on the opening weekend of the 2023 Rugby World Cup and the Springboks flexed their defensive muscle to suffocate Scotland’s challenge, writes Mark Keohane.
Du Toit has found the mongrel in his mojo. This is the guy who was named 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year. Du Toit was immense, in carrying the ball, and in imposing himself on attack and in defence.
His energy was obvious but it was the mongrel he should when carrying the ball that was a delight to observe. He was strong and angry when taking the ball into contact. He pumped those legs and worked that body and his five pointer was just one example of how he combined power with purpose in giving the Boks an advantage every time he took the ball into a collision.
Du Toit, for the Boks, and Antoine DuPont, for France, were the headline acts for me. Both are such influential players and when the two play well, the results tend to favour the team they are representing.
New Zealand were predictably poor as a forward collective. They lost Sam Cane to injury before the tournament opener and playing three No 7s in their back row made them even more vulnerable. The All Blacks will always dazzle with their backs and they are always good for a spectacular try or three, but it takes more than good backs to win a World Cup.
It takes a bloody good pack, and the All Blacks just don’t have one.
Mark Telea, on the left wing, is a very good player. He was more menacing in contact than any of the New Zealand forwards, while the French dealt comfortably with the All Blacks. The French had to win well in the opener to make a statement and they did.
But they are heavily reliant on Dupont and there is a marked gap between Dupont and the next No 9 cab off the rank.
France are well led and particularly well coached by Fabian Galthie. Shaun Edwards is also an exceptional defensive coach and tactician and he has succeeded where so many have failed in that role for France.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is another of the game’s defence coaching leaders, while Rassie Erasmus tactically heads the table.
The Boks, with Manie Libbok at flyhalf, are a greater attacking threat but on Sunday we saw the qualities of a squad that loves defending and trusts their rush defence system. Collectively, they Boks were on point as a unit, and when a pass or a slipped tackle did beat the rush defence, there were always players turning and scrambling to make a tackle.
He got a lot of plaudits for a no look kick pass yesterday, understandably, but this tackle from Manie Libbok was first class. High enough to prevent the pass, low enough to lasso Graham’s legs. pic.twitter.com/i4tC7hjPrO
— Sam Roberts (@SamRobertsComms) September 11, 2023
Libbok’s tackle on Scotland wing Darcy Graham was a fine example of this.
The Boks, in the opening 30 minutes, perhaps played with too much width but I’d suggest that was because of the first-match butterflies. The second half effort was more controlled and the Boks were noticeably more patient as Scotland’s challenge faded.
Scotland are a good side. This was a very good win from the Boks and a tactical victory for the Bok coaches in how they cancelled the threat of Scotland flyhalf Finn Russell, with the knock-on effect being that Duhan van der Merwe was never an attacking threat. The Scots just couldn’t play Van der Merwe into the field positions that make him so dangerous, as they were constantly being harassed by the rushing Bok defence.
The Boks’ rush defence, when it functions as effectively as it did on Sunday, is an attacking weapon.
England’s 27-10 win did not surprise me; what did was just how awful Argentina were in losing.
Australia were okay, even if Eddie Jones would have the world believe they were awesome. Italy, Japan and Ireland produced results that were consistent with all pre-match predictions and the most enjoyable match was Wales’s 32-26 win against Fiji.
It was played at a terrific pace, although Fiji’s game management was poor and their approach, at times, was stupid in the context of winning the Test. The Fijian fire and flare produced glorious moments, but greater rugby intelligence would have produced a greater result.
The same can be said for the Pumas.