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Rugby | Springboks

Pieter-Steph du Toit © Gallo Images

Bok disappointment the biggest positive

There was lots to be positive about for the Springboks in their final Castle Lager Rugby Championship engagement of the season, but perhaps the biggest positive came by way of a negative.

While the South Africans emphatically answered the post-Albany question about whether there was really as big as a 57 point difference between the teams, the fact that they had made up 56 of those points on their home ground was not providing reason for them to celebrate after a Newlands clash with the All Blacks that will go down as one of the great test matches.

Siya Kolisi was joined at the post-match press conference top table by Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit, and while both of them had produced special performances in what for them were new roles, the disappointment of losing was evident. Kitshoff spoke about how gutting it was to put so much on the line and yet fall so tantalisingly short, and the solemn Du Toit was in full agreement.

It mirrored the attitude of captain Eben Etzebeth after the draw in Perth earlier in the competition. The Boks don’t often get parity in Australia, and they might have been forgiven for celebrating the draw. But there was none of that. The Boks want to be winners, they want to be No 1, and Etzebeth made that clear and with their words he was followed by some of his players at the weekend.

No1 suddenly doesn’t seem the laughable prospect it would have appeared just a few days ago, but perhaps there might be one small silver lining in the fact that the Boks did not get over the line for the win that would have been quite deserved had it happened in the Newlands cauldron. At least it means that the Boks and their supporters will remain grounded and thus lessen the chances of a repeat of 2014, when the Boks won against the All Blacks in Johannesburg and then faltered on their end of year tour.

Just as it was ridiculous for the South African rugby public to become so negative and pessimistic and be so reactive as was the case after the Albany annihilation, so it would be wrong to swing too strongly the other way now. No, the Boks are not nearly as bad as so many thought they were, and a proper study of the Albany game should have told us that, but they also still have some travelling to do before they can challenge to be No 1.

Professional sport is about winners, and while the All Blacks were fortunate with two of their three tries and the third one – Damian McKenzie’s – also came their way courtesy of a Bok mistake, the game needs to be put into perspective in the sense that the Kiwis did overcome overwhelming odds to win it.

Forget the Cape Crusader presence, Cape Town is still an away venue for them, and those who were there will vouch for the passion of the support the Boks enjoyed. On top of that, the travel factor is even more pronounced when they go to Newlands than when they play in Johannesburg as the extra flight actually adds on another four or five hours if you factor in transit time.

It was always going to be a big challenge for Kieran Read’s men, and to top that, this time they faced a Bok team that was determined not to let the scoreboard dictate how they played the game. Whereas in Albany their heads dropped once they had made three mistakes when otherwise dominating the physical battle to trail by 24 points, this time they showed us what is meant when coaches and players keep talking about “sticking to the processes”.

Not that it was needed because this time the All Blacks, chiefly because of the Bok commitment when scrambling on defence, weren’t able to make use of the chances they had early in the first half to score demoralising points against the Boks against the run of play. Think Jesse Kriel getting back to dislodge the ball from Rieko Ioane’s hands on the left corner. There were other occasions when, from the lofty perch that is the Newlands press box, it was obvious that it was on for the All Blacks as they countered and yet the Boks stopped them from rounding off.

Had they taken two of the four opportunities that came their way and got more than a score ahead it might well have impacted on the Bok psyche and it might have been a different game just as in Albany it would probably have been much more of an arm wrestle had it not been for the crazy seven minutes when the Kiwis scored soft points to build their big lead.

They say modern rugby is about small margins and when you play the All Blacks it is particularly so. If you make mistakes against them they will punish you, and particularly so if you are the Boks, as they tend to be switched on against the South Africans as a foe that they still respect highly. The Boks learned lessons the hard way at Newlands – no matter how dominant you are, how relentless you are, the All Blacks will still punish your mistakes.

The mistakes made by the Boks at Newlands weren’t so glaring or alarming as those made in Albany, so the question then follows – how do you remain error-free against the All Blacks. The answer is that you can’t, so maybe the key to beating them is to become like them. That means that you up-skill yourself to the point that you are able to feast on their mistakes as often as they feast on yours.

That goal is a long way off being realised but as the dust settled on Newlands and the shadows of Table Mountain spread across the field after the final whistle sounded on an epic game, one thing was crystal clear. The Boks are much further down the road to realising that goal than they were this time last year, when they were licking their wounds after a 42-point defeat at Kings Park. And that should make it feel like a win for them.


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