A change in usual Twickenham script
Reading through the British newspapers on Sunday, it was clear that the build-up to the Springboks’ final tour match against England will be running to a different script from that which we have become used to for Twickenham tests in recent years.
No sooner had the Boks completed their mission by winning 21-10 at Murrayfield, than the message came through to the coaching staff: England had lost to Australia in London. That was a different outcome from two years ago, when England hammered Australia and took impressive momentum – and the favourites tag – into the clash with the Boks.
England were expected to win this latest match after the Wallabies were so poor against France last week, and the result means that England will build up to Saturday in a very different place from where they were in the corresponding match of 2010.
Back then it was the Boks who arrived in London from Edinburgh facing a crisis. They had lost to Scotland and, coming as it did at the end of a unflattering year for the then world champions, it meant that there would be serious pressure on the South African rugby administrators to take another look at the future of the Bok coaches were they to fail at Twickenham.
This time it is England who are under all the pressure. The heavyweight opinions in the Sunday newspapers, from the likes of Stephen Jones, Stuart Barnes and Paul Ackford, were that England had failed to make the statement that was needed if the billing they were being given by their coaches – that they are a team building for greatness – was to be believed.
Former England lock Ackford described it as a reality check, former flyhalf Barnes was equally scathing, and Jones made it quite clear in his match report that the 20-14 defeat to Australia was a vindication of those who questioned the appointment of Stuart Lancaster as head coach.
“This was the game England had to win. They did not and neither did they deserve to. It was meant to be the first result under Stuart Lancaster that took them somewhere, anywhere. But they remain rooted to the same spot,” wrote Jones.
Indeed, and England have now played four games against the southern hemisphere top teams since last year’s World Cup, and they have lost three and won none. The creditable draw against a depleted Bok team in Port Elizabeth remains their only break-even game in that sequence.
PRESSURE ON ENGLAND
So England will go into the match against the Boks with the same sort of pressure on them that their opponents faced last time. England play the All Blacks in the remaining match of their autumn campaign, so they have to hit their straps this week in the same way that the South Africans had to in 2010.
If you recall how well the Boks responded to the pressure then, it might seem an ominous omen that they don’t face the same backs-to-the-wall crisis.
But the good news for Bok fans who might have been away from the planet on Saturday and didn’t see the Murrayfield test, is that it’s not as if the weekend results have left the Boks with nothing to prove either.
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The Boks remain good in patches, particularly at forward, and those who don't rate the South African progress only needed to listen to Scotland coach Andy Robinson speaking after Murrayfield.
He reckons the Bok game is coming together, that the plan is understood and is working, that it is hard to live with the South African physicality.
But Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as coach hasn’t brought the immediate success that some might have been hoping for, and while he is right in saying that the Boks have now taken two steps towards the goal of completing a rare unbeaten tour, let’s be blunt about this: South Africa is not Romania, and winning against Scotland should be an anticipated event.
That they lost in near-monsoon conditions on their last visit should not be regarded as a legitimate excuse for more mediocrity.
The Boks had their chance to put the Scots away, but once again, as they frequently have when they have got themselves into good winning positions during the Meyer tenure, they failed to do so.
UNCERTAINTY, VULNERABILITY AFTER HALFTIME
Just like they had in Johannesburg in the second test of the era against England back in June, a compelling and dominant first half was replaced by uncertainty and vulnerability after halftime, and in the end Meyer was heard doing what no Bok coach should ever be heard doing after a Scotland test – lauding his team’s defensive effort.
Of course, there are mitigating circumstances. Meyer is right when he says the players are tired. It has been a long year. Some of his players looked out on their feet in that second half. They did do well to hang in when there was no gas left in the tank.
But ultimately, although it did help erase the memory of what happened the last time the South Africans were in Scotland, the day was an underwhelming one rather than an overwhelming one, and good though the Bok forwards were in the first half, the complete inability of the backline to look up to top international standard remains a massive concern.
So is the general attacking game of the South African team, and a DVD of the South African tries of 2012 would be about as interesting as studying clouds moving across the sky – it would be made up of Bryan Habana and a sequence of driving mauls.
Frankly it just isn’t good enough, and while the pack is awesome and on that basis we have to rate the chances of Meyer coming out of this as the coach of a special team a year or two from now, the lack of ambition is not helping win people over to the Bok brand in the here and now.
Too often it appears the team is driven by fear of failure rather than hunger to succeed.
Motivation though is not something that has ever been lacking against England. There is something in the history, both on the rugby field (no-one has forgotten 53-3) and off it in the bad old colonial days, that hypes up the modern era of Bok players.
They will need to be hyped up though for Meyer needs an 80 minute performance from his team if this year is not going to be remembered as one that should really be forgotten.
This past weekend showed that the England resurgence is hype and not reality. If the Boks don’t win then we may need to question whether their future is any brighter than that of their troubled opponents.