The best team in the world
This might sound like a statement even more bizarre than the big win scored by the Springboks in their final Tri-Nations fixture, but fans may have even more right to be angry now than they were when their team lost to the same opponents in Durban.
After that game, where the Boks were outplayed 27-15, there was a chorus of boos, both from the terraces immediately after the game and when they climbed on their team bus and made their way through the famous ABSA Stadium braai area immediately after the game.
At Coca Cola Park it was a different story – the Boks were cheered from the field after an eight try to one and 53-8 triumph that would have restored considerable pride and faith in the green and gold jersey.
But while it was good to see the Boks win, there must have been many who shared the anger I felt at seeing a game-plan that should have been implemented throughout the Tri-Nations prove so successful when it was finally employed on a day when it no longer really mattered.
Had the Boks stuck to the principles that were employed in Johannesburg, it is reasonable to assume that this was a year where they should have convincingly won the southern hemisphere competition.
Instead they ended up coming last in a season where they lost four out of six matches, a miserly win percentage of just 33%, and slipped in the process from their No1 world ranking to third. On top of that, for the first time they lost successive Tri-Nations fixtures at home, while the loss in Durban was the first to the Wallabies on home soil since 2000.
Australia have never been happy visitors to South Africa, and you could say that in Johannesburg they saw the return of their old insecurities once they were placed under the sort of pressure that the Boks failed to do in previous matches, where they seemed in between styles and uncertain of what to do in the face of calls from the management to play “new age rugby”.
Whatever “new age rugby” might mean, it was severely criticised by former Wallaby coach and Bok technical adviser Eddie Jones, as well as the World Cup winning Bok coach Jake White in the week building up to Coca Cola Park.
Full marks to the Bok management for the way they steered clear at the post-match press conference of taking any swipes at Jones, White or any of their other critics, for it would have been disingenuous to do so. What the Johannesburg game proved was that the critics were 100% correct, that the World Cup winning players remain excellent performers, they just need to be employed in the right way.
In this year when New Zealand and Australia are both rebuilding, and we have seen enough evidence during this Tri-Nations of how vulnerable both those teams are under pressure, it is certainly not stretching it to suggest that a retention of the basic tenets of the World Cup winning formula would have seen the Boks come out tops.
That they didn’t was because they appeared to forget the truth behind that old saying that “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”, and Saturday’s big win proved that the old strangulation technique employed by previous Bok teams can be as effective under the ELVs as under the old laws.
Neither does it make for unspectacular rugby, for the Boks scored eight great tries – the attacks just need to be launched from the right field positions, and at the right times. They did run from their own half after half-time, but by then they had earned the right to do so, and this is why the traditional Bok approach has been known as “subdue and penetrate”.
The magnitude of the win will probably ensure that some of the pressure is released on the beleaguered management, but if it is to remain that way they are going to have to internalise the lessons of Coca Cola Park, and accept that for change to be effective it needs to be gradual.
Flashy rugby is only carried out effectively by confident players, and confidence is bred by winning. When the Boks returned to what they knew, they proved what many of us felt we knew already – they remain the best team on the planet when they play it their way.