World Cup Rugby – 2015: Quarter Finals

So now we know. New Zealand have laid down a marker that defines the rest of the tournament. In its thrashing of a disorganised but, at times, brave and determined France, all the signs became clear. Now that the minnows have swum home and stronger teams have to adjust from the dubious pleasure of experimenting against far weaker teams, the truly professional sides engage in battle.

If teams wish to attain victory, they must have settled all basic requirements beyond debate. Skills must be as near to perfect as possible both in open play and under pressure. In this NZ vs France game, the first scrum occurred in the 32nd minute of the first half. That tells us something about impressive overall controlled aggression and control of ball in ‘loose’ play. It also makes me hope the enduring dinosaurs who repeat, without any evidence of thought, that ‘it’s all about the front five’ will put a sock in it. This is modern rugby, not the trench warfare of 1914-18. ‘Over the top’ simply doesn’t work anymore. The opposition have more than machine guns and barbed wire. They have gas! - Savea, Ben Smith, Milner-Skudder, Nonu! And they have modern generals, who know how to analyse, strategise and plan a match. The All Blacks and their coaches could never be like the title of a World War One book, “Lions Led By Donkeys’. They are ‘Lions Led By Lions’.

NZ 62-FR 13? It’s hard to believe, even if the French coach, Saint-Andre, has the worst record of any recent national coach among the major rugby nations. He must have friends in high places. Nine tries, or was it ten, to one? The mind boggles. Watching the All Blacks amass this total, I forgot about counting. Support play, which the All Blacks have raised to a level where they know they can throw the ball left or right and someone will be there to take it, is startling. There’s always someone there. And if a player goes to ground, he knows how to make it available and off they go again. It was obvious that the forwards do not simply barge into the opposition as the Springboks do, they vary it. 

On at least five occasions I recall, Reid or McCaw drove forward and then drew the opposition and passed to a player in open space. Even Faimuina gave a one-handed offload to Ker-Barlow after he had drawn two defenders. When last did you see Schalk Burger, playing of course to instructions, draw an opponent and then pass the ball, before contact, from a set piece? Doesn’t happen. Run, bash, recycle, lose the ball.

Have we, the Springboks, really reverted to ‘subdue and penetrate’ and a pious hope that yesterday’s tactics are suitable for today? Tanks are fine, but you need to bring in the cavalry at precise moments. When our cavalry are called upon, you have a backline cluttered with forwards. They’re, so to speak, in among the horses, messing things up. (My wife, June, said at one stage, ‘Why don’t they (Boks) use their backline ’ Almost at once, Pollard passed the ball along the line. But who were there to take it? Well, a hooker, a flank, only then a centre and a wing if he was lucky. He wasn’t. Somebody’s not thinking shrewdly enough, let alone laterally.

The game against Wales showed that persistent resolve can pay off....just! The Boks showed great determination against a heroic Wales side. One try each. Pollard missed three penalties at goal, kicked a very good drop when needed. For the Welsh, Biggar, with his own drop on the stroke of half time, was inexplicably replaced with ten minutes to go. Why? He was the stand out Wales back, full of poise and control. And the result was in the balance! What clown made that decision?

I have a problem with replacements. What on earth was Lambie sent on for with 4 minutes to go? As a favour? Guilt? A commentator said, ‘That gives Lambie his ‘umpteenth’ cap.’ What outright crap? A cap for 4 minutes? Who are these people?

The winning try by du Preez was a beauty. Meyer said afterwards it had been rehearsed. Good, and clearly often enough. Now the All Blacks have seen that one, what else do we have to surprise them? I hope we have at least ten variations on attack in the red zone alone; all rehearsed to a very high level. Why, to think of one option, isn’t Pietersen hanging ‘straight’ and then coming in at pace on the burst to take a reverse pass or flip or offload? Have we forgotten the famous ‘move’ against the All Blacks in New Zealand when a double-dummy put Rossouw over under the poles for an historic try and victory? Just a thought.

Getting back to the du Preez try, I must say a Welsh replacement at scrumhalf just before, played its part in the Boks’ favour. Let’s acknowledge the consequent strong counter-ruck by the Boks which found the new scrumhalf flailing about and losing the ball. Then, with a wheeling scrum (when exactly are they legal?), Williams could not get to Vermeulen so his right wing, Cuthbert, had to come in. Vermeulen’s timing was superb and his offload just right. Cuthbert turned despairingly as du Preez dived over in the corner. Great try.

The Wales defence was awe-inspiring, but you can’t win games with backs who can’t penetrate.  (For what it’s worth, I don’t think much of Jamie Roberts. He’s a big strong lump, like Bastereau for the French. They both batter away and achieve little or nothing.) Our defence was sound on the whole, but our rush defence does leave us open to well-placed chips, one of which Biggar executed perfectly and sent in Davies for a try. The All Blacks will have made a note.

Why are the Boks looking like a team without penetrative three-quarters? Do we have enough real talent? We have the justly-famous Habana with an amazing work-ethic, great opportunism, terrific speed, but no ‘in-out’ classical swerve to beat his opponent on the outside. I’ve never seen it. He is a jinker without a side-step. de Allende gives his all and attempts breaks by cutting in and linking with his loose forwards. It hasn’t really worked against a high-class team yet. As for Kriel, he has speed and some guile but I have never seen him ‘do anything’. (Perhaps he played well while I was away in the UK for five weeks.) Pietersen gives one hope on attack and is an excellent tackler.

As for Pollard, well here’s a fine player with good hands, reasonable passes, good right boot, tackles soundly, thinks, uses the diagonal kick well considering he often uses the inside foot which increases the factor of risk and inaccuracy : one vs Wales for example, because he was kicking with a right foot to the left, got hooked back into midfield; possession given away on a plate. Have I said this before?!!! It’s about ATTENTION TO DETAIL.

I suddenly realised as I watched Pollard against Wales, that he has no outside break. He can only attempt to break the line by running on an inward arc. It once led to a memorable try against the All Blacks last year when he thundered past two props. But now they’re all ready for it. Where is the outside half-break and pass or offload to his centre behind the back of the opposing player? He can’t or hasn’t been coached to do it. His drops kicks are first class, his grubbers fair, his penalties erratic, his line-licking variable. Good enough for a Springbok flyhalf? I don’t think so. (I think Lambie has been made the sacrificial lamb for the loss to Japan.)

Monday 19th October 2015: Argentina beat Wales well and so it’s four Southern Hemisphere teams in the semis. The Australian victory against Scotland was ‘deserved’, but teetered on the failure of a normally reliable referee to consult the TMO: inexcusable and unusual for Referee Joubert. On such small edges does fame wobble.

Can the Boks beat the All Blacks? I doubt it. We don’t seem to be in the same ball park. They pass better than we do, they tackle better, they carry better, they support better, they scrum as well, their lineouts are OK, they are masters of the turnover (where is Heinrich Brussouw?), they manage the rhythm of the game better. They kick their penalties: little of this ‘skop and hope’ rolling mauls for them. They take the points.

Then turn it on in the second half. Attack from the ‘off’. Now the drives down the centre of the field. Strong physical attack and defence. Look for drops, force penalties, keep them in their half, then, last quarter, bring in your impact players to finish off.....and so on. (As a school coach, I so enjoyed talking these things through with Johan Heymans, my excellent forwards coach at Fort Victoria High School and with Peter Snyder, a fine Head Coach at Churchill. (7 out of 11 wins against our great rivals Prince Edward in our coaching years together). It was all so challenging to plan to outwit your opponents and such fun to play above your best, especially against bigger schools.)

That’s what the Boks have to do come Saturday – play above their best in all phases of the game. Were I in charge, I’d bring back Jannie de Beer, a stupid comment I know, but I’m that desperate to be proved wrong. 

Neil Jardine

19th October 2015

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