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Darkest hour hopefully an aberration

So how far behind the All Blacks are the Springboks, and is this a time to panic?

The second question is the perennial one that follows a humiliation, but by even asking the first one I am probably inviting ridicule.

I can almost hear the doom merchants chiming in “It was 57 points, you can’t argue with 57 points”. Of course they would be right.

The Albany game was indeed one of Bok rugby’s darkest hours. Yet if we are going to be constructive as opposed to just reactive, it is a question that should be asked.

After the Stormers were smashed by big scores in consecutive matches in Christchurch and Dunedin earlier this year I made the point that the Cape team wasn’t as far behind as the results might have suggested. It might have seemed daft, yet I received support from Kiwi coaches who visited Newlands later in the Super Rugby season.

Both Tana Umaga (Blues) and Dave Rennie (Chiefs) said that the Stormers were a much better team than their results overseas had indicated and that there were just small things that were preventing them from becoming a formidable force. I’d say the same about the Boks.

It won’t happen quickly, because a lot of it comes down to skill-set, which isn’t something you just suddenly get right after waving a magic wand. When it comes to tempo of play, the All Blacks are just in a different league to the rest of the world, and on their good day they will punish even the tiniest errors.

But the game in Albany wasn’t like the one at Kings Park, where the Boks just looked hopelessly outgunned from the outset. By my reckoning, there were seven minutes in the Albany match that made all the difference between it being a close contest and the humiliating drubbing it turned into.

Those seven minutes was the period that separated the Beauden Barrett penalty that made it 3-0 and the second try that took the All Blacks to 17-0. The first try was the product of some audacious quick thinking from Aaron Smith, who put in the grubber from a quick tap that Rieko Ioane chased down, and the second was scored off an intercept. An intercept is always a lucky score.

The Bok chances of being competitive depended on a strong start and it is universally accepted that if you go behind early against the Kiwis you are dead in the water. Much of what happened after that, when the Boks really lost it and became progressively worse, needs to be seen in that context.

The injured Bok captain Warren Whiteley appears in a television advert where he claims that “We will never give up”. They’d have to be robots though if their heads did not drop and their standard of play did not get impacted by the big gap on the scoreboard and the task of chasing the game against the All Blacks.

On another day, such as their clash with the Wallabies in Sydney a few weeks ago, the All Blacks might have relaxed once they’d built a big lead. This time they didn’t. They seemed stung by suggestions of a possible decline and were ruthless and relentless in making their point.

What the game confirmed was what we knew already. The All Blacks are ahead when it comes to skill-set. The Boks made a strong statement physically early in the game, but they made little mistakes that were turned into big mistakes by a Kiwi team that have the skill to exploit them.

So if we return to the second part of my question, no it is not time to panic. What this game really told us was that the decisions made at the coaching indaba held two weeks after last October’s Durban massacre were the right ones.

Basic skills need to be worked on, and there has been a strong emphasis on introducing drills designed to equip players with those skills at most unions and, on the evidence provided by the most recent Craven Week, across several levels of the South African game.

As the Stormers’ Kiwi skills coach Greg Feeney has said, the improvements that are necessary, the development of skills to the point where execution becomes second nature like it is with New Zealand players, will not happen quickly. It will take time.

I am up and down when it comes to deciding how much progress is being made in the areas that Feeney would be referring to. In the early phases of the Currie Cup, the amount of ball in play time was astounding. But since the teams have started to settle their defensive systems, there have been some poor games where the skills have been abysmal.

The point remains though that the intent is the right one and what has been started must be persisted with.

When it comes to the Boks in the short term, recent rugby history provides many examples of how quickly momentum can be turned, one of those being the dramatic turn-around by the Wallabies from the Sydney Bledisloe Cup game to the one in Dunedin.

If they stick to their pledge to focus on the processes and not to worry too much about results, they may well show us at Newlands that Albany was an aberration.

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