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Self-belief key to Bok comeback

I wouldn’t mind 10 dollars for every time I’ve read a story about the All Blacks losing their “aura of invincibility” or going into a decline, or the gap closing between them and the rest.

Mostly they come out of the northern hemisphere, often written out of hope by people who don’t much like continually losing to upstarts from a far flung former colony.

There have been more of them than normal this year, and with some reason.

It took a fairly massive effort just to split two tests with Ireland last November, they had the life throttled out of them in the June series against the Lions (albeit with a little help from two pliable French referees) and had failed to put together a full 80-minute performance in three Rugby Championship tests.

The Springboks, meantime, had been busy trying to regain their own aura, one badly damaged since their gallant exit from the 2015 World Cup, ravaged by the torrent of players heading overseas, hampered by the outdated coaching mantras still lingering in the domestic game, and by the impediments thrust upon them by the halls of power.

The first meeting of the two old foes in 2017 was seen as the ultimate gauge of how both were tracking.

While an All Black win was no surprise, the magnitude of that win will have shocked a few around the rugby world who’d been eagerly anticipating a continuation of the uncertain form so far.

Not just yet, is this All Black team on the downward spiral.

Not quite yet, are the Springboks ready to challenge for their old seat at the head of the table.

For all of 15-16 minutes it was looking on course for a classic battle of the sort we’ve seen so many of over the years.

Indeed, the Boks had the better of the early running, blasting through an early scrum, competing well at the breakdown, and with Jesse Kriel running some sharp lines, challenging the All Blacks midfield defence.

Everything changed in a flash with two quite brilliant pieces of opportunism, and suddenly the ABs had a 17-nil lead.

To that point the Springboks had done little wrong, and could be justified in asking what they had done to deserve such a deficit.

In 2000, the Wallabies found themselves asking that question after falling 24-nil down to New Zealand within the first 10 minutes of perhaps the most extraordinary test ever played.

Their captain called his team together and pleaded with them not to lose faith. “We’ve done nothing wrong, we haven’t had the ball yet."

That was a great Australian team, and the man doing the talking was John Eales, a player and captain of legendary status. His players believed in him, and he convinced them to believe in themselves. By halftime they were back on level terms.

The All Blacks were able to come back from a similar position against Australia in Dunedin a few weeks ago, knowing that 60 minutes is ample time to erase a deficit conceded in just 20.

And I guess that spells out the difference as to where those champion Wallaby and All Black teams were and where this Springbok team is currently.

For all their progress this year, they still lack the absolute conviction that they are good enough, and the leadership to get them out of a tough situation.

That’s not a slight on Eben Etzebeth. He is an awesome player but he is a natural lead-from-the-front man without having had the time in the job to become anything beyond that.

His team simply had no belief that they could win after conceding what were in reality two converted tries against the run of play. Proof that while they can beat other teams, losing to the All Blacks has become a habit. Instead of rallying, they crumbled, and the score blew out to record, embarrassing proportions.

The hope has to be that with time, those attributes will come so that a team that is certainly not lacking in power and talent, will develop the mental acumen and the tactical savvy needed to turn things around, to dig themselves out of a hole in the manner the All Blacks learned to do the hard way.

And because of that you can argue that Allister Coetzee was not entirely looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses when he insisted on promoting the positives. He has to.

But he has to be realistic, too.

The stats from this test are telling.

The All Blacks' possession advantage wasn’t that great… plenty of teams have won test matches with less than 47 percent of the ball.

New Zealand carried 115 times to 102, but made over double the metres, and 15 clean breaks to four.

The two teams were required to make a very similar number of tackles 133 (NZ) to 141, the Boks missing 32 to 19.

Take out the nine missed by Raymond Rhule, a player whose continued selection can no longer be justified, and it’s not that much of a difference either.

The All Blacks were that much sharper on attack for sure, but the Boks couldn’t make the breaks.

The All Blacks are being lauded for their defence in this test, the last at home with the much-admired Wayne Smith in the role of defence/transition to counter attack .

But the Boks made it way easier for them by reverting to type when the heat went on.

Repeatedly charging straight into tacklers is not going to cut it against a defence that stands its ground, commits as few as possible to each breakdown, and maintains discipline. These stats suggest the Boks and the South African teams in general need to do more to try and find ways around defenders, or angles to cut by them.

It should be accepted too, that this was not all about a Springbok capitulation.

Since being strangled by the Lions, and at the risk of sounding conspiratorial, quite possibly sacrificed on the altar of future Lions tours, the All Blacks have gone back to the laboratory.

Graham Henry always said that those three defeats to South Africa in 2009 were ultimately good for the team because they made them think.

They’ve had to do it again this year because after the Lions tour everyone is going to try a similar defensive strategy to negate their attacking game. They are trying to beat the rush with rapid movement of ball through the hands and a bid to play the game at unprecedented velocity.

So committed to this are they, that they have shelved their very effective box kicking game. They still kick, but more often they kick wide rather than high.

It all clicked quite beautifully in this test, but there was something a bit freakish about one or tries, while a couple owed themselves to defence not good enough for test rugby.

The Springboks' response must be to have a good think, and with the rugby IQ on their coaching staff they can surely come up with something.

What has the All Black response been?

Well, obviously they were happy to win in such commanding style, but they have made it clear they are expecting a tougher game when they go to Cape Town in two weeks.

They have taken a risk by leaving several elite players out of the group to go to Buenos Aires, to keep them fresh for the return match against the Springboks.

In part this is because of the travel schedule that the All Blacks face towards the end of each year, when in the space of nine weeks they go around the world twice and play six matches in five different time zones.

In the past they have tried to embrace the debilitating time zone shifts from Argentina to South Africa as a challenge, but now they are trying to find ways around it in the interests of the players well-being.

It also tells us they are still expecting a much tougher game from a wounded Springbok team at home.

After last weekend, I think we’d all like to see that.

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