A significant moment for Bok rugby
There was a unique event that happened in Edinburgh on Sunday night – world rugby’s greatest long-standing rivals, the Springboks and the All Blacks, shared the same hotel in the old city.
New Zealand were of course here because they beat Scotland 51-22 in a Sunday match at Murrayfield, the South Africans arrived in the city after making the trip across the Irish Sea following their much closer 16-12 win over Ireland in Dublin the day before. It shouldn’t have been too uncomfortable for the two teams, for they do get on well off the field, but if there were any smug looks as the players bumped into each other in the corridors, they would have come from the Kiwis.
The South Africans readily acknowledged the All Black superiority when the world champions won at Nasrec recently, and there is no denying that even though they have subsequently been denied a record by being held to an unexpected draw by Australia in a dead-rubber Bledisloe Cup fixture in Brisbane, it is still Richie McCaw’s men who are the class act.
Their win on Sunday was against a Scotland team that locals were lauding for showing pluck and playing well, and the winners had made 10 changes from the last time they played. So not only are they winning, they’re also still spreading their depth, and doing it effectively.
But while on the face of it there is a wide chasm between the two great rivals, and a particularly massive one if you were to just look at the Boks' first-half performance against Ireland and then compare it with the All Blacks, this past weekend might well have seen the most significant moment since Heyneke Meyer took over in the South African quest to catch up.
One of the post-match press conference questions directed at the Boks at the Aviva Stadium might have seemed bizarre -- “Will you be looking back in a year’s time and seeing today as a turning point?”
But while it may have seemed an odd thing to ask after a four point win against a team without seven of its top players, anyone who saw the match should have understood where it was coming from. This was not a day where lauding players for showing character was a tired old cliché, and the truth is that the Boks showed a lot more than just guts and tenacity in fighting back to win.
They also showed maturity and composure, a touch of class, and above all a fair measure of the sort of power play that can send shivers of apprehension down the spines of future opponents. As bad as the first half was so the second half was impressive, and while the final scoreline might seem close, there was never any doubt the Boks would win once the forwards had got the driving maul going and scored the first try of the match early in the second half.
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From then the Boks were winning the collisions, and even before that, when they never had any ball, their defence still looked too good for Ireland.
And with the tide of penalties turning against Ireland, as it does when you’re coming off second best in the physicality contest, the win was ultimately a relatively comfortable one in the sense that the Boks seldom had to sweat. Indeed, they did waste the odd scoring opportunity that would have put them out of sight and their second half endeavours deserved more than one try.
In shifting gears like they did, and in so doing erasing a first half that was every bit as poor as the performance against Argentina in Mendoza three months earlier, the Boks provided a significant moment in their development, one that did not go unnoticed by the coach and the captain.
“I reckon this win was a bigger moment for us than when we scored five tries in beating Australia at Loftus,” said Meyer afterwards.
“We were desperate in the first half and I was worried. I cannot tell you what I said to the players at halftime as it wasn’t nice. But they responded, and I don’t think they would have been able to respond like they did had this game been played earlier in the year. I see this as a significant moment in the growth of the team.”
Skipper Jean de Villiers, who himself showed much better form after his short break from the game because of a hamstring injury, concurred with his coach, pointing out that it is easier to be selected into the team than to produce when it was necessary to do so, and the team had responded magnificently to the situation they were in.
Hooker Adriaan Strauss, who along with Francois Louw, would have come close to being the Bok man of the match for his tyro efforts around the field and also in the primary phases, pointed out that the way the win was achieved might mean more in the long-run than had the team scored an easy victory.
“It’s moments like that, when you are down and then you come back to win, that draw a team together and give you self belief and confidence, and you could feel it in the changeroom after the game,” said Strauss.
So the Boks go to Murrayfield this week on a high and looking to prove that while they may not be quite ready to better the All Blacks, they can at least start joining them on a different level by scoring an emphatic win. They will know it was what was expected on the last two occasions they were here, and yet in 2008 they only just squeaked home and in 2010 they lost.
But the memory of those games plus the dark hole they were in when they trailed by nine points and had hardly any ball to play with in the first half at Aviva Stadium, should ensure against any complacency and enable them to score the win that will take Meyer past the 50% win percentage for the first time since August. On the evidence of what happened on Dublin, it is unlikely to drop below that again, and could well soar in 2013.
Ireland 12 South Africa 16