Springboks: when days are dark …
What their opening game (and loss) means for the Springboks
After the Springboks were beaten 23-13 by the All Blacks in Yokohama on Saturday, disappointment hung over the land like, well, a black cloud. Not only was the loss difficult to stomach after the bullish expectation of the past few weeks, but the defeat was rich in implication.
New Zealand’s win demonstrated that the All Blacks are still the team to which all others in this Rugby World Cup (RWC) should aspire. They are smart, quick and powerful, and they aren’t about to give away their mantle of World Cup champions on a platter.
They are also tactically supple, capable of playing a variety of patterns and types of game. Surely they will be there at the end.
That said, during their opening 20 minutes against the Boks they were as shaky as Elvis Presley’s trouser leg. Their lineout is creaky and passes were slung out with such abandon that they might easily have found their way into South Korea.
Pity that the Boks were unable to capitalise on such anxiety, and, 20 minutes in, the All Blacks began to find their mojo, with tries from George Bridge and Scott Barrett in a four-minute blitz that effectively sealed the contest.
Down 17-3 at halftime, SA coach Rassie Erasmus chose his words well at the break, because the Boks were galvanised in the first 20 minutes of the second half. Pieter-Steph du Toit crashed over from close and a sweet Handré Pollard drop-kick brought matters to 17-13. That was as close as the men in green got. A couple of penalties extended the New Zealand lead and they wound the clock down like the professionals they are.
The Boks’ next game is against Namibia on Saturday, followed by Italy next Friday. They will expect to win both — as well as their final group match against Canada — but part of their struggle in the weeks to come will be to keep in perspective what happened in Yokohama.
It’s a delicate art because they need to both learn from and forget what happened in their opener. They’ll need to win all their remaining games, keep an eye on the Scotland and Ireland group, from where their quarterfinal opponents will come, and trust themselves to win once they reach the knockout stages.
Sages have said that it’s 12 years since the Boks’ last RWC win in 2007 and 12 years between that one and the win in 1995. The loss to the All Blacks would have appeared to have nipped such mumbo jumbo in the bud, given that in both those competitions, the Springboks won their openers — against Australia and England respectively.
More apposite, perhaps, is the 2003 comparison, in which the Boks lost their opening game to England and went on to lose to New Zealand in the quarterfinals. Such a path looms again after the loss to the All Blacks but a repeat of 2003 is probably unlikely. Erasmus’s men are a happier and more settled and capable side.
And after Ireland’s comfortable 27-3 defeat of the Scots on Sunday, it looks likely that SA will meet Ireland in the quarters. Having coached at Munster in Limerick, Erasmus will fancy his chances against the men with clover on their jerseys. It’s a case, from here on, of looking forward, not back, comfortable in the realisation that for periods in Yokohama the New Zealanders looked very twitchy indeed.
Then again, the Bok halfbacks of Pollard and Faf de Klerk were not at their best against the All Blacks. Pollard’s out-of-hand kicking was erratic and De Klerk’s was arguably worse, with his wild pass not only signalling an end to the Boks’ domination of the first half, but leading to the All Blacks’ first try.
In Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, Ireland have the most experienced halfback pair in the world, so ours need to up their game against them. They will play an astute kicking game against the Springboks, with the triangle of Willie le Roux (fullback) and Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi (wings) likely to have a busy afternoon fielding high kicks and up-and-unders.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. First we must beat Namibia, Italy and Canada.