USA vs Springboks

I found it difficult to watch the Springboks play the USA. Who would go out of his way to watch the Ist XV play the under Fifteen B team? In case that sounds harsh, one must compliment the ‘junior’ side, in this case the USA, for a terrific display of courageous defence in the first half. The Springboks, it seemed, were unable to gear themselves up to use the full panoply of forward power and attacking brilliance required. So the second half became something of a farce: exhausted and now desperate in defence against a resurgent Springboks, the USA more or less imploded. In the first minute after half-time, de Allende strolled through for the first of a glut of tries.

The South Africans moved into top gear and were re-energised and refocused. Some hard words must have been spoken at the break. (But why wait for the break to motivate?) So we watched one-way traffic with some terrific tries. The forwards were powerful and dominant, support play improved. As for scrums, I winced each time du Preez called one: men against boys. The try that pleased me most was Habana’s on the right wing from a perfectly kicked grubber by du Preez, this through a gap he is unlikely to find again when top teams are defending. I was pleased too to see le Roux execute another grubber off his ‘other’ foot only for the bounce to beat Habana over the tryline.

So, it was difficult to learn anything significant from this lopsided encounter. A number of people sent me Graeme Henry’s dismissive comments on the way the South Africans are playing in this World Cup – ‘too slow’, ‘carries too high’........more or less the same traditional style of ‘thump and dump’, my words not his. The question remains whether the Boks will persist with ‘playing off Number 9’, drive predictably up the park and then lose good ball in the backs, as ‘under-coached‘ a set of three-quarters as I’ve seen for years at this level. As a former Bok remarked to me a few days ago, ‘Our chap is just out of his depth.’ Who is he? I know Meyer’s name of course, but the backline man? I should have looked it up. (I mean ‘googled’ it – shows my age.) 

At another get-together, chatting to Brian Murphy, former Rhodesian great No.8 and Ray Mordt, former phenomenal right wing for Rhodesia and South Africa (only international player to score a hat-trick in two successive tests: against the All Blacks and then USA way back) we agreed the Boks, despite some evidence of more creative thinking, lack cohesion, initiative and self-belief, especially when the ball is won. Naas Botha can go on and on with the meaningless mantra ‘it’s all about the front five’ till the mombes come back to the kraal, but anyone who applies his mind to the modern game – which Naas does most of the time – knows it’s now about rolling mauls, penalties, drops, grubbers, sea-tight defence and creating the extra man. 

If scrums are fairly even, the ‘front five’ merely ‘deliver the pizza’. Nobody seriously thinks the Boks will massively out-scrum Wales, New Zealand, Argentina and even now, after their improved performance, Australia. So it’s about another higher dimension of planning and thinking. More of the same just won’t do it. Opponents are analysing every aspect of previous performance.

We watched again as Habana, after another try, pointed his index finger to the skies, assuming, I suppose that is where his Chief Motivator is situated, even if the world is spinning at a rate of knots. Some enjoy this sort of thing, others find it intrusive and unnecessary. Ray Mordt, on this issue, said: ‘Doc Craven, the greatest man I met in rugby, once told me this story. Stellenbosch University were playing Tukkies. With a minute to go, Stellenbosch, leading by two, watched as the Tukkies kicker lined up what would be the winning penalty. Behind the posts, the defenders dropped their heads. The kick missed. Afterwards, Craven addressed his players thus, ‘I know what you were doing behind the poles when they took that penalty. You were praying! You were praying for it to miss. Tukkies were praying for it to succeed. What sort of Christians are you who place your Lord in that sort of situation? The only proper time to pray if you wish to, is before a game and the prayer should be for both teams to play hard and fair.’

(For those who haven’t read it, Craven’s story gells with the First World War poem written by J.C.Squire of a Supreme Being approached by soldiers in the trenches praying for victory.

“God heard the embattled nations sing and shout
God save England! God save the King!
God this, God that and God the other thing -
‘My God!’ said God, ‘I’ve got my time cut out.’ ”

Some questions:

Are box-kicks merely evidence of no-brainer tactics and simply a way of giving away possession? Rugby by rote? Mostly so, as I see it. I note there are fewer used by the better teams.

Why is it not routine to drive into the opponents red zone just before half-time and then, after say three attempts at tries, slotting a drop-goal on the whistle? It should be routine and obvious. 3 is better than 0.

Why are ninety percent of poor passes given to the right? Easy; most players guide the ball better with their right hand. (I’ve seen three intercepts from looping, spun passes to the right in this tournament, all of them of the ‘skip’ variety. Former All Black captain, Taine Randell, says, if he were coach, anyone using a skip pass would be replaced. He has a point. It allows the cover defence to race straight out towards the wing. The risk factor, too, is very high.)

Did Scotland win the match against Samoa? Of course not. Samoa handed it to them on a plate. Owing to a false sense of macho, overly-aggressive tactics and play, the Islanders gave away kickable penalty after penalty. I was appalled by their childish lack of self-discipline. They were easily the more talented outfit. Laidlaw’s try was a gem, but the match was won by then. Out of step with the commentators, not for the first or last time, I thought it was a poor game, riddled with basic errors, one for the uninitiated, one for a festive crowd. I became irritated by the amateurism of it all.

Is it possible for forwards to fight hard for the ball in rucks, ala Pocock of the Wallabies, counter-ruck with aggression, join a ruck without ‘coming in from the side’ and giving away penalties? Of course it is, but the old thought recurs that some forwards wear their IQs on their backs, especially 1 through 5. Penalty after penalty after penalty given away.

Are forwards coached more thoroughly and for longer than backs? I’d say ‘definitely’. All the evidence of attention to scrumming, line-outs, rucks and mauls is there. The generally poor passing of nearly all teams apart from Australia and New Zealand confirms my worst fears. I watch match after match with dismay as passes are given to the ankles, the head, behind the receiver and so on. The forwards have won possession, the ball is there, the handling and passing must be perfect or as close to it as ‘dammit’. The coaches are setting the bar far too low and the Springboks are among the worst.

So, where are we? The Boks take on a wounded Wales side. You can depend on it they will come out breathing the fire of the Welsh dragon. They will sing their anthem not as a courtesy but as a call to arms. There is no logic in my prediction that South Africa will win the game. Perhaps it’s history that’s got to me, or desperate hope married to reasonable expectation. 

Do we have something special up our sleeve for this crucial game? Something the other sides have not seen, something in reserve to startle and distract, to disrupt defences and score tries? Can we kick all our penalties? Will we have the courage to drop goals when tries are elusive?

I hope Meyer and his fellow-coaches prove my enduring pessimism about the way the current Springboks approach each match, quite wrong. But the players now have to realise fully that it’s an eighty minute encounter and those with the better basic skills, who employ discipline, who use possession with intelligence and flair, who defend without fear and with utter resolve, who take the points on offer, will emerge victorious. 

Obvious isn’t it?

Neil Jardine
12 October 2015

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