Boks playing to the stats
When you have followed or covered rugby in South Africa for a long time, and you possess a reasonable memory, it is sometimes impossible not to spot the recurring themes and arguments.
For instance, while much of the country celebrates the Springbok feat of completing the home leg of the Tri-Nations unbeaten, there are still many critics bemoaning the way they are do it. “What has happened to the spirit of adventure?” ask some and “Surely we should be scoring more tries!” lament others.
This is nothing new for it has happened several times, including in the aftermath of the 2007 World Cup triumph. But for me the current debates are most reminiscent of 1998, the year the Boks won the Tri-Nations for the first time without losing a game.
Like now, suffocation rugby was pretty much the order of the day, something that was suited to that team’s strength if you consider that the Boks of that period boasted arguably the best loose trio in the world and that in Henry Honiball and Pieter Muller, who stood together in the flyhalf/inside centre axis, they had rugby’s equivalent of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Teichmann’s men ran up a record-equalling winning streak, but with each win so the expectation heightened, and the clamour for them to open up and play more attacking rugby grew. It reached a crescendo when they reached Britain and Ireland at the end of the year.
The build-up was dominated by the calls from some sections of the media for Mallett to include the attacking skills of Bob Skinstad. This was because Rule No 1 from the public at that time had changed from being that the Boks win to that they win with style.
History will record that Mallett dropped Andre Venter to accommodate Skinstad, and it had a massive impact on the team dynamic. It wasn’t Skinstad’s fault, but there was a mood adrift that suggested something needed to be fixed that did not need fixing, and it proved costly. This is something that the current Boks brains-trust must be careful to avoid.
I do understand what is meant when it is suggested “Ruan Pienaar can offer more rugby-wise than Morne Steyn”, but right now Steyn is in the zone, and the Boks are in the zone. So why fix it if it isn’t broken?
Former Bok coach Jake White has also said that the Boks need to be more daring if they are going to win overseas. But we know Jake too well to think that when he says that he means they must now make the same mistake that New Zealand made and start to run from everywhere.
The Boks can do more with their possession when they are in the right areas on the field, but the one period of the Cape Town game where they fell back into the rugby of last year’s Tri-Nations should be a warning to them.
That came in the period when the Wallabies were down to 13 men because of yellow cards. Instead of playing controlled rugby, the Boks lost their heads, and their frantic attempts to attack left them scoreless in a ten minute period when they should have put the Wallabies away.
What the Boks are doing now is playing to the statistics of the recent Super 14, which told us that only six per cent of the tries in that competition came from moves that originated in the scoring team’s half. I did not see the stats for it, but we can take it for read that a high proportion of the tries scored by teams from good field position came as a the result of mistakes made by opposition playing from their own territory.
The Tri-Nations bears this out. The All Blacks did score a great 95-metre try in Durban that originated from a quick lineout throw-in, but how many points did they concede in the two tests played in South Africa through mistakes made in the wrong parts of the field? It was the difference between the two teams.
The second Bok try of the Bloemfontein test originated deep in the South African half of the field, but it was from turn-over ball as the All Blacks were punished for a mistake they made in trying desperately to chase the game. The rest of the tries in the tournament have all come from what we would call excellent field position, and the 15 penalties kicked by the Boks in just two matches says everything of the folly of playing from your own half.
The Wallabies looked a lot more assured once they started playing a territory game early in the second half in Cape Town to negate the Bok numerical advantage, and the New Zealanders may well be welcoming back Dan Carter shortly. So don’t be too surprised if the Boks find during the overseas leg that the opposition have wised up.