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Rugby | Springboks

Springboks © Gallo Images

The reasons for the Bok renaissance

The quest to keep their feet on the ground and not get ahead of themselves is the right approach, but there can be no denying the massive strides that the Springboks have made in a short space of time.

Whereas just eight months ago Kings Park was a depressing place to be as the Boks took 50 from the All Blacks (it could have been much more) in a home test match, the fun was back at the Durban venue this past weekend as the South Africans scored their first really convincing series win of the Allister Coetzee era.

Skipper Warren Whiteley was quite strident in expressing the view after the 37-15 win that his men still have it all to do.

He is not wrong. The French were at full-strength in Durban and hit the Boks with the physicality and intensity that was anticipated in the early stages, but once Whiteley’s team had blunted their thrust, they looked predictable in an old Bulls kind of way. In other words, when they didn’t get physical ascendancy, they had nothing else.

Of course, it goes without saying that the Boks are a long way from being able to say they will beat the All Blacks. But then when you consider where they ended last year, it isn’t the All Blacks that the Boks should be comparing themselves to right now.

The first objective must be to fix what went wrong and start making the steps back up the rankings. From that perspective, the two tests against France have been a great start, and you don’t have to be a rugby rocket scientist to pick up how much better organised and coached they are now, as well as the greater intensity and tempo that has been injected into their game.

Whereas in 2016 the Boks looked lethargic and listless, they are now clearly reporting for work. Coach Coetzee may be wrong in some ways to be so eager to forget about 2016, because it is when you compare now to then that the current performances look so good. You do need to keep where you started in sight if you want to measure your progress, and what is clear now is where it went wrong in Coetzee’s first season in charge.

Firstly, Coetzee was right when he lamented the lack of planning time. He was only appointed in April ahead of a June series against Ireland, and without the benefit of training camps, he did not have an opportunity to start working on the creation of a team culture. The Boks don’t have to keep pointing it out, for it is now clear that the players are playing for one another, that they are more of a team than they were 12 months ago.

It came through in the last minutes of the Loftus test, when the Boks threw themselves into the task of keeping the French out when they were camped on their line. It was a similar story, perhaps to a much greater degree, when the French were desperately trying to break through their defences and get back into the match in the third quarter. The French hammered away for nearly 10 minutes at one stage with sustained attacks and yet the Boks stood firm.

That was when the French predictability with their around the corner runner mode of attack was most evident, but it still took a lot of attitude on the part of the Boks to stand up to the onslaught.

But it isn’t just in the area of team culture that the Boks have it right, and Coetzee is only partially right when he keeps pointing at attitude as the key to the defensive renaissance. Good defence in the modern game requires a lot of science, and defence is just one of many areas where there is a lot more science being applied than there was a year ago.

Certainly, it is science being applied by a more experienced mind, and probably only the members of the camp will properly be able to attest to the full impact being made in all areas by defence coach Brendan Venter. Venter’s impact has been massive.

So has that of Franco Smith now that the attack coach has had time to work properly with the players. There wasn’t enough time on the end of year tour, but because of the camps and the week in Plettenberg Bay, he has had enough time now, and the Boks, as a result, are looking far more potent when they have ball in hand.

Part of that improvement can be ascribed to the changes that are sweeping in at Super Rugby level. Siya Kolisi himself made the point after the game that he probably wouldn’t have been able to affect the brilliant pick-up that led to his try had it not been for the skill drills that are a daily part of the Stormers’ training life and which are being introduced at the other local franchises too, subsequent to the coaching indaba last October.

Of course, we come back to the subject of time when we look at what is happening at Super Rugby level, because the Bok coach cannot be expected to turn average players into world beaters in the time he has available to him. The All Black success story has shown that it can only be done with the help of the Super Rugby franchises.

In that sense, another big reason for the Bok improvement is that unlike last year, they do not have players in key areas who spend the bulk of their time overseas. The starting team at Kings Park, as at Loftus, was made up of only locally based players who had been part of the training camps and party to the trends coming through in Super Rugby.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important change made by Coetzee this year: selection. Whereas at the start of 2016 he ignored the logic of basing his team around the country’s most successful franchise, this year he is embracing it.

The appointment of the Lions captain to lead the team was a masterstroke, and if Coetzee has one regret, it might be that he didn’t see the light a year ago. The Boks might not have gone through their annus horribilus had he done so.


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