Patchy Boks show huge potential
Given that you would have to be an ignoramus to expect the Springboks to produce 80 minutes of perfect top-intensity rugby when they are playing England in the middle of a tough Super Rugby season, the national team and their new coach should be more than happy with where they are right now.
Playing as a relatively new team under a new coach with just five days of proper focused preparation for the series was always going to make this first assignment a tough one. With England by contrast a far more settled team, I agreed with Nick Mallett’s view that the Boks could be in trouble and that England could not be underestimated.
England have made it a good contest in both the tests played so far, and nearly pulled off a freaky Houdini Act at Coca-Cola Park. Had Frans Steyn not miraculously got both hands on an England attempt to punt the ball behind him with eight minutes to go, the final score could easily have been 32-31 or 34-31 to England rather than 36-27 to South Africa. As England coach Stuart Lancaster said afterwards, the game at the highest level is about small margins.
But all that really matters in international rugby is the final scoreboard, and the Boks were on balance the better team in both matches and deserve their winning series lead. That should be good enough if you consider that in addition to playing under a new coach, the Boks had two new locks in addition to other fresh combinations and went straight into the series from a bruising sequence of Super Rugby derbies.
The attrition rate had a role to play in the Boks' second-half fade in Johannesburg, with key players being forced to leave the field. In the circumstances, Jean de Villiers did well to keep his makeshift team composed when the momentum had so clearly shifted England’s way, and the young players on the field will have benefited hugely from being part of such a tense win so early in their international careers.
The mitigating circumstances are good enough reason for me to share the enthusiasm that Meyer displayed after the win – there was enough in that dominant first half to suggest this Bok team could become an awesome unit.
Those first 40 minutes were possibly the most dominant the Boks have been against a top nation since the 53-8 massacre of Australia at the same venue in 2008. Certainly for a long time the game looked headed for a similar result, with the Boks systematically grinding down England with their superb display of poise, control, strength and skillful ball protection.
It should have been enough to earn Meyer a tick next to his name, for those who feel aggrieved at the way England were allowed back into it may be both a little too fussy and also short-sighted. And they are missing an extremely important point – none of the southern teams has been particularly impressive in this June series of international matches between south and north.
Both New Zealand and Australia could so easily have lost their games against Ireland and Wales respectively, with the All Blacks failing to retain the momentum of the previous week. On this evidence, the Boks are not lagging behind either of their two main southern rivals.
But why have the games been so close? I don’t agree with Lancaster that it's a sign that the gap between north and south is narrowing. Instead it's vindication of those who predicted that the ridiculously tough double round of derbies that the new Super Rugby format entails would knock the stuffing out of the southern teams.
The first two weeks of the southern hemisphere international season have just been a continuation of the trend started at the last World Cup, where Australia were out on their feet due to the tough Sanzar schedule and the All Blacks did well to win in the face of an injury epidemic that robbed them of key players.
The form of the top teams in Super Rugby started to become inconsistent towards the end of the sequence of matches prior to the international window, and we are seldom witness to full 80-minute intensity in that competition. The physical demands are just too much, and there has been a carry-over into the international season.
Whether we ever see north and south competing on a level playing field will depend not only on Sanzar but maybe on the IRB, for it may be that such an ideal will remain impossible until such time as a global season is introduced. Until that happens, and the ridiculous schedules foisted on the players are eased, patchy might just be as good as it gets.