A glimmer of hope for Boks
The Springboks probably have a better chance of upsetting New Zealand in Dunedin on Saturday than seemed likely before another disappointing weekend for Jean de Villiers’s team.
The All Blacks won comfortably in the end and will probably ratchet up their game a bit against their traditional opponents five days from now, but were not always that flush against Argentina in Auckland. True, the Pumas did raise their game and played their hearts out, yet that is what you will expect South Africa to do this coming weekend too.
Those who like to run down his influence probably won’t agree, but the All Blacks do appear less scary when Sonny Bill Williams is not around. It was the Sonny Bill off-loads that former Bok coach Peter de Villiers, in a perhaps unwise attempt to bolster the confidence of his own players, once described as bad for the game that made the All Blacks appear so formidable.
Make no mistake, they’re still the best in the world, but on the weekend’s evidence perhaps not unbeatable. So don’t completely write off the Bok chances of repeating what they did on their last visit to the south island city in 2008, particularly as the hosts will be without Dan Carter.
While there was a lot wrong with the Bok performance against Argentina in Mendoza a fortnight ago, the competitiveness of the Pumas at one of New Zealand’s most intimidating venues did bring some perspective. Maybe Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is right when he says people are underestimating what the Pumas are capable of. It’s way too early to take a definitive line, but three games into The Castle Rugby Championship the Pumas do look competitive.
A face-saving Bok win in Dunedin though remains a long shot, and the Boks are going into their week in the city facing an even bigger crisis than the one they faced when they were there four years ago. Back then De Villiers had just the one defeat on his record (in Wellington the previous week) to go with three wins back home (two against Wales, one against Italy). Meyer also has only one defeat -- Saturday’s reverse in Perth was his first -- but the draws against England and the Pumas, teams the Boks should have been expected to beat each time, felt like losses.
As it stands at the moment, Meyer has a 50% win record -- and his team hasn’t even faced the All Blacks yet! That has to be a source for concern, even if it is unrealistic to expect this Bok team, with so many changes from last year, to immediately become a consistent, all-conquering force.
The problem with the loss in Perth was that it was against a team that was there for the taking. It is doubtful that the Boks will run into a Wallaby team again that was so low on confidence, and thus so willing to play into their opponents’ hands by putting boot to ball and thus playing away from their own strengths.
Let it not be forgotten either that Perth is supposed to be one of the Boks’ better away venues, one that is often referred to as a home from home.
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The Boks were half-decent in the first half, and were full value for the
13-3 lead they built up heading towards the halfway mark. But even then there were warning signs and those pigeons that have been hovering around Meyer’s head over the past few months started to show signs of coming back to roost.
The Boks tried hard to be more inventive when in the right areas of the field (they never did anything other than put boot to ball when they were in their own half), and the selection of Ruan Pienaar as the starting scrumhalf, something that was probably about three matches overdue, paid off by taking pressure off Morne Steyn.
But while Steyn was improved on Mendoza, he still made mistakes as a distributor and decision maker that kept the Boks from being the factor on attack that might have seen their first-half dominance translated into something much more meaningful than the six-point lead they eventually enjoyed.
There were shades of last year’s World Cup quarterfinal against Australia in Wellington about this match. Only last October the Boks might have tried too hard to run the ball and play attacking rugby when perhaps a more conservative, forward based approach would have brought the desired result. This time they fell down because they went too much the other way, and while they appeared to complete the task of subduing, they never really looked like putting the seal on it by penetrating.
In a nutshell then what is missing from the Boks is balance, and that little bit of unpredictability that would enable them to remain a threat even on those days, which come often in the modern era, where their opponents are able to front them physically.
When the chips were down and there was no option but to play attacking rugby the Boks showed signs in the last 10 minutes of being able to do it, when significantly Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie had been added to the mix.
Two footballers with a bit of X-factor ahead of players who at their best are solid but no more than that can make a big difference to a team’s winning potential and with Goosen you have a player who is able to do what Steyn does -- and bring more.
It would be a gamble to throw him into the starting team against the All Blacks as he is only recently back from injury and has hardly played.
There is far more pressure brought to bear on a player when he starts than when he comes on as a replacement.
But it has probably always been Meyer’s intention to phase Goosen into the team in time and his cameo in Perth should have been enough to nudge the coach into realising that it is something that must happen sooner rather than later. If that proves the case, then the sweat expended by the Boks in this disappointing defeat to a poor Wallaby side may not have been in vain. Provided the right decisions are made and the lessons heeded going forward, there is at least a glimmer of hope.
WEEKEND CASTLE RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS
Australia 29 South Africa 22
New Zealand 23 Argentina 5