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Rugby | Springboks

Lood de Jager © Getty Images

Stranger things have happened

Whether you believe the Springboks are capable of pulling off one of the most stunning turn-arounds in the history of sport may depend on whether you take the things that have been said this week by New Zealand coach Steve Hansen and some of his players at face value.

The All Blacks go into the final Castle Lager Rugby Championship test at Newlands as overwhelming favourites not only to win, but to win handsomely. Spreads of between 12 and 29 points when it comes to winning margin sum up how emphatically the Boks have been written off.

The South Africans have been written off before when playing against the All Blacks in the post-isolation era, and for good reasons. You just have to look at the record since readmission in 1992 to realise that the titanic battles of old can no longer be the expectation. And with the exception of Emirates Airline Park in 2004, when Jake White’s team won by a mile, and Durban in 2009, all the one-sided games have been won by the All Blacks.

But it is doubtful that the Boks have been as comprehensively written off for a home game as they have been this time. While Hansen does make a habit of building up his opposition, and so he should for complacency would otherwise be a constant enemy for his all-conquering team, he may well be chuckling a bit at the hysterical reaction of South Africans to the Albany whitewash.

He told a press conference on Thursday that he doesn’t believe the gap between the teams is as big as people think it is and he said his players recognised they were in a tough game in Albany. He was echoing the sentiments of his captain Kieran Read and also senior player Sam Cane, who said something similar when the bulk of the squad arrived in Cape Town on Monday.

Yes, you may laugh and say “Try another one Sam”, but then anyone who has properly watched the Albany game – it’s actually quite amusing how often you find that some of the more hysterical people haven’t – would agree with Hansen’s comments about where his team won the match.

It wasn’t that the Boks were hit by a black tidal wave that swept them away. It was, as Hansen says, “precision and efficiency” that won it for the All Blacks. A lot of that, as Cane pointed out, was about small margins, so when assessing the Bok chances at Newlands you have to decide how quickly a team can make up the gap in precision and efficiency, and how small those margins really are.

The answer is that it can’t be done overnight. The process of upskilling South African players across the board so that they can be as clinical and efficient with the basics of the game as the New Zealand players are is a long one. But the truth is that the All Blacks aren’t always as precise and efficient as they were in Albany. And neither are the Boks always as error-prone.

Hansen effectively gave the Boks their game plan on Thursday.

“They will be out to execute better and they will know if they can do that they will be in the game,” he said.

They will be if, at the same time, the All Blacks are less effective than they were last time out, and perhaps made some of the errors they did at stages of last week’s match in Argentina, in the Dunedin clash with Australia, where the Kiwis got out of jail, or the second half of the Sydney match a week before that.

The chances of the All Blacks being more mortal with their execution could depend heavily on how well the Boks pressure them into error, and here we think of the games that came for the All Blacks before the Rugby Championship started.

The rush defence system of the British and Irish Lions took them out of their comfort zone. While you can’t overnight change your whole defensive system, there was some support from coaches with Super Rugby franchise coaching experience for the Supersport.com story suggesting the Boks need to be bold and bank more on line-speed in their defensive strategy against these opponents.

There was agreement from them that giving the All Blacks' runners extra metres to build up momentum in this day and age is suicide and contributed to the 33 missed tackles in Albany. The same recipe again from the Boks shouldn’t lead to the same sort of scoreline as that game, for that was freaky, but it will lead to the same overall result.

The Bok coaches have gambled with their selection at forward and we will have to wait and see if it works or not. Not everyone is sold on the idea of Pieter-Steph du Toit playing on the flank but he is a more experienced and a more skilful player than Jean-Luc du Preez, who played there in Albany, while also bringing the bulk and the ball carrying ability needed for the blindside role.

Lood de Jager hasn’t been the same player he was when he was the Player of the Year in 2015 but has shown signs of getting there, and must have impressed in training or he wouldn’t have been selected. Apart from the lineout woes that Coetzee is trying to address with his forward configuration, De Jager has also had success as a ball carrier when in his most bullish mood in the past. And that is what the Boks will be looking to do, carry the ball.

The real Bok weaknesses are probably still at the back. The back three still look lightweight for a match against New Zealand, and seeing he has been happy to gamble, it is a pity that Coetzee wasn’t prepared to gamble on Jesse Kriel at wing, a position he is probably more suited to than outside centre. Scrumhalf Ross Cronje didn’t play the All Blacks last time so this will be a first time for him, and while his halfback partner Elton Jantjies has played the Kiwis before, he still has it all to do in terms of being effective against them.

When you look at it like that, and you have to acknowledge that in almost every position the All Blacks have better players than the South Africans, then it is indeed a tall order for the Boks on Saturday. They do deserve to be underdogs. But if the All Blacks can be made to fall out of their habit of producing their best in games against the old foe, and the Boks can somehow do the opposite, then an upset is just possible.

If you look at the world rankings this game is not like South Africa against Japan in Brighton in 2015. So stranger things have indeed happened. Don’t expect them to, but they can.


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