Rassie & Co will be smarting from their outing at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland
The first fortnight of the truncated Rugby Championship provided the Springbok coaches with a number of important answers.
The quest to expand the team’s attack has gathered momentum, with the Boks showing more ambition and precision against Australia and New Zealand in recent weeks. On the other hand, the discipline, tactical kicking and game management have been woeful and need to be addressed as they build towards the World Cup in France.
The Bok coaches took a risk in selecting a largely second-string combination for the first Test of the season against the Wallabies. If the Boks had lost that match — and suffered a first defeat to Australia in Pretoria — there would have been a national outcry.
As it was, the second- and third-choice players fired to score six tries in an emphatic 43-12 victory against the Wallabies. While it’s worth noting how poor Australia have been — they lost nine out of 14 Tests in 2022 — the Boks must be commended for their approach and execution in that fixture.
Lock Jean Kleyn impressed on his debut for South Africa, while flyhalf Manie Libbok controlled the game superbly. Hat-trick hero Kurt-Lee Arendse was ruthless with ball in hand. Those players, and a few others, have given Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber food for thought ahead of naming a 33-man World Cup squad in early August.
The decision to send 13 “first-choice” players ahead to Auckland for Saturday’s Test was expected, given that Erasmus and Nienaber employed the same split-squad strategy in 2019. Four years ago, the Boks’ second-string side thrashed the Wallabies 35-17 in Johannesburg. The “A team” drew 16-16 with the All Blacks in Wellington the following week, before going on to thump the Pumas 46-13 in Salta, and clinch the Rugby Championship title. That win set the platform for a greater triumph at the subsequent World Cup in Japan.
After the bonus-point win at Loftus Versfeld two weeks ago, many felt that history was about to repeat itself. By all accounts, the advance party had acclimatised to the New Zealand time zone and local conditions. Despite the injury-enforced absence of leaders Siya Kolisi and Handré Pollard, as well as the news that Eben Etzebeth’s father had died, the team declared itself ready to push for a first victory in Auckland since 1937.
On the day, however, the All Blacks handed the Boks a physical and tactical lesson. The hosts bossed the collisions and aerial battle in the opening quarter, and converted that dominance into a 17-0 lead. The Boks fought back to win some respect, but couldn’t stop the All Blacks from winning the match 35-20.
There are several reasons to lament this result. With the win in Auckland, the All Blacks have taken the lead in the Rugby Championship title race. Unless the Wallabies perform a miracle in Melbourne next week, and the Boks rack up a bonus-point win against Argentina in Joburg, the All Blacks will retain the trophy for the fourth consecutive year.
Last Saturday’s result also marks a missed opportunity for an ambitious Bok group that won the 2019 Rugby Championship, 2019 World Cup and the series against the 2021 British & Irish Lions. Had they won in Auckland, they would have become the first Bok team to succeed in the City of Sails in 86 years.
They could have extended their unbeaten run in New Zealand to three matches. They could have carried some psychological points into their next encounter with the old enemy at Twickenham on August 25, and into a potential World Cup quarterfinal meeting in October. But because of the weekend’s result, it’s the All Blacks who have that advantage.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the match in Auckland was the inconsistency of the performance. As was the case when they battled Ireland and France last November — the top-ranking teams in Test rugby — the Boks produced a mixture of mediocre and magnificent.
The standard of refereeing has been a big talking point in recent years, and the officials didn’t get everything right in Auckland. But the quality of the opposition in each of the Tests against Ireland, France and New Zealand over the past 12 months must be acknowledged, as well as the Boks’ high error rate and poor discipline in each match. In short, the Boks have been their own worst enemies.
The All Blacks beat the Boks at their own game in the first quarter on Saturday when the match was lost. By winning the set pieces and collisions, the All Blacks laid the platform for Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett to execute the kick-chase strategy. Outside backs Mark Telea and Will Jordan then proceeded to win the aerial battle, and ensure that the All Blacks had the chance to run at an unstructured Bok defence.
The All Blacks scored 17 unanswered points in what Nienaber described as “a period of chaos”. Overall, the All Blacks kicked from hand 28 times, and regathered possession on seven occasions — a remarkable success rate against a South African team that prides itself on its aerial skills.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the match in Auckland was the inconsistency. The Boks produced a mixture of mediocre and magnificent
The kickoffs were also a problem for the Boks because the All Blacks regathered two from eight. The Boks leaked penalties in the first half and while they showed improvement across the board in the second half, their discipline continued to let them down at key moments.
The failures of that first half, and the result, will haunt them for some time. They still have time to address those shortcomings before they travel to the World Cup, where teams such as Scotland and Ireland — in the pool phase — and France or New Zealand — possibly in the quarterfinals — will test them via a similar aerial bombardment.
And yet the manner in which they fought back in the second half speaks volumes of the character and culture of the team. At halftime, they appeared to be staring down the barrel of a humiliating 50-point defeat. Somehow they clawed their way back and at one stage, after a searing attack culminated in a spectacular Cheslin Kolbe try, they were within sight of an unlikely comeback victory.
It was during this period when the Boks provided a glimpse of the game plan they have been developing for the better part of six years. They hammered the All Blacks at the scrums, and started to earn some reward via their driving maul. They lifted their physicality and accuracy at the collisions and breakdowns, and their defence started to catch the All Blacks ball-carriers well behind the gainline.
On attack, they dared to launch from deep within their own 22m zone, and started to find support runners with a series of ambitious passes. Willie le Roux and Libbok thrived in a dual-playmaker system, while Kolbe once more proved to be the team’s main strike weapon.
It’s encouraging to think that Pollard — whose goal-kicking and game management sets him apart as South Africa’s premier flyhalf option — will return to bolster the group in the coming months. The rise of Arendse may force Kolbe to find another gear, and the prospect of both featuring in the same backline will give defence coaches nightmares in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The team has already welcomed back another key member in RG Snyman. While the Boks have plenty of depth in the second row, they have only one player with his skill set to take their attack to the next level.
The giant lock was part of the group who won the 2019 World Cup, and was tipped to become one of the world’s best players in the ensuing years. Unfortunately, Snyman was sidelined with a series of knee injuries, and played only a handful of club matches before returning for his club, Munster, in early 2023.
Two weeks ago, he played his first Test in nearly four years. When coming off the bench to face the Wallabies and the All Blacks, he made an immediate impact at the line-out and gainline. When the Boks looked to move the ball wide, Snyman often slotted into first- or second-receiver to make a key pass. Those little touches were crucial for Munster during their title-winning run in the recent United Rugby Championship, and will surely boost the Boks in the coming months.
The entire Bok bench — known as the Bomb Squad — proved its worth against the All Blacks. Malcolm Marx, Thomas du Toit, Vincent Koch, Snyman, Grant Williams and Libbok all provided the team with the necessary spark, as did the duo of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen.
The latter two may well be promoted to the starting side on the back of their performances. The coaches erred in the balance of their selections, saving too many of their big guns for the second half. It’s another thing to consider as the World Cup draws close, and perhaps the Boks should count themselves lucky that they made these mistakes sooner rather than later.
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