NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, 3 OCT - South Africa might be back in the winning groove having followed their restorative victory against Samoa last week with a dominant 34-16 success against Scotland at St James' Park, but the nightmare of their opening-match defeat by Japan has not been forgotten.
When it was put to him that after the morale-boosting back-to-back triumphs, which put them top of Pool B, his team would be fancied to get a win against USA on Wednesday that would clinch qualification for the quarter-finals, Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer gestured towards his new captain, Fourie du Preez. "I'm going to close Fourie’s ears, because we can’t play as favourites," he said.
"We're at our best if we’re written off so we have to keep the pressure on ourselves. I don’t know why but it’s part of our mentality. If the whole world writes us off, that’s when we come back.
"We’re going to have that ruthlessness and desperation going into Wednesday as well. We don’t talk about favourites. We just take it game by game."
Coming out fighting
It is becoming increasingly clear that, having absorbed the shock of their seismic defeat by the Japanese in Brighton, the Boks used the setback to their advantage, coming out fighting to find a vein of form that had eluded them all year.
Against Samoa at Villa Park they ran in six tries in a 44-6 victory. Against the Scots they had to settle for just the three tries, courtesy of Schalk Burger, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, but produced a hugely dominant performance driven on by a relentless forward pack in which young locks Eben Etzebeth and Loudewyk de Jager were stand-outs.
Handre Pollard, their 21-year-old-fly half, was equally impressive outside the razor-sharp Jannie du Preez, weighing in with 19 points from his right boot that included his second test drop goal.
The 38-year-old Burger played his part too while Habana’s score (pictured) was his 61st for his country, putting him clear in third place on the all-time international try list.
"You have to take confidence from the good things," said Meyer, who on the debit side had Du Plessis sin-binned for the first time in the prop’s career. "Suddenly our lineout is working with the youngsters. Then there was Handre's kicking performance and our defence. In two games we have given away one try: that’s how you win trophies.
"It’s great to have some sort of momentum but we have to keep our feet on the ground. We have to be humble and learn from our mistakes in the past."
The false start against Japan was possibly the biggest setback in Springboks history. "It's been immense pressure," said Du Preez. "These last two games have been two of the most pressure games I’ve ever played in my life. Not even the 2007 final was as pressured as these two weeks has been."
It is now Scotland, having lost for the first time in the pool, who find themselves under pressure ahead of their match against Samoa at St James' Park next Saturday. For the third time in succession they produced a poor first-half performance and trailed 20-3 at the break, but this time they did not have nearly enough possession or clout to overhaul opponents who were vastly superior, despite an interception score finished off by winger Tommy Seymour.
"I think the score was a fair reflection of the game," said coach Vern Cotter. "We were dominated in the contact area and we struggled to move forward. We don’t seem to have the confidence to start well. It will be something that will definitely be talked about.
"Samoa is now a crunch game. We’ve got seven days to iron out some of the things we didn’t control as well as we would have liked."