Two points! That was the difference in the end. We came close but did not, for all who watched, play well enough. The score flattered us. New Zealand indiscipline kept us from embarrassment. We scored eighteen points from six kickable penalties and never looked like scoring a try. Not even a biased fan could claim that.
But, we might have a won! Heyneke Meyer said afterwards, ‘The crucial turning point was the reversed penalty when Matfield was found guilty of a ‘neck roll’ press.’ If Pollard had kicked that penalty we would have gone into a 15-7 lead. Meyer has a point but there were other turning points in a game, just as vital, where we just might have snatched from the jaws of defeat:
If Pollard had dummied a pass and then attempted a drop instead of dummying a drop and passing to his centre, maybe....? I don’t think Pollard can kick drops with his left foot. If not, why not? He’s a professional flyhalf. Who is the coach? It’s plain unacceptable. Carter kicked his drop ‘on the run’ at a vital stage. He knows you don’t have to stand directly behind your pack to receive the ball for a drop. Does Pollard know that? Jannie de Beer knew that in 1999. So did Larkham a match later!
If the Springboks had not lost a vital lineout near the All Black try-line – among four lost in the match – who knows whether the rolling maul would have worked; most do, but the Kiwis have obviously worked hard at techniques to foil the maul.
If Willie le Roux had not been positioned behind his own flyhalf in the Boks’ defensive red zone (who taught him that?!), so that he had no chance of getting to the corner flag to tackle Kaino, would the latter have scored? Maybe not. Where was the cover defence? The man who attempted the tackle was a lock forward, the ever-improving Lodewyk de Jager!! Loose forwards AWOL?
If the Boks had been better prepared for the second half when they were opposed by 14 players, could they have prevailed? What was said at the break? They led 12-7. I sincerely hope it wasn’t along the lines of ‘Stick to the game plan’. Admittedly, they had rattled New Zealand by applying pressure and their defence was heroic. The Kiwis had been forced into ‘Sean Fitzpatrick mode’, resorting to their frequent tactics of ‘influencing’ officials. It was tempting, therefore, to stick to the old mantra of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ But it was ‘broke’ in the sense that the Boks couldn’t attack with any degree of success. de Allende apart, where was the attacking flair or confidence to take us over the gain line and then work the short side with two on one? The truth is, the first half had been little more than a holding operation.
So we simply had to have Plan B for the second half. We didn’t. It seems apparent that our coaches lacked both the courage or the tactical flexibility to tweak the strategy. Surely, the first thing to have acknowledged was that the All Blacks would come out ‘breathing fire’, determined to step up territorial dominance and deny the Springboks as much ball as they could. Surely our coaches knew too that the first ten minutes of the second half were absolutely critical – 15 men against 14. We simply had to up the pressure and gain and retain ball. Commitment had to be at a superlative level.
So, if our coaches were aware that these 10 minutes after the break constituted the vital fifth percentile in the entire match, why did we not raise our game to even higher levels? Maybe this advice was given and not taken. But this final half of a semi-final was absolutely critical – make or break. I detected vibrant energy from New Zealand at the kick-off; the Boks were resolute but predictable. The match was lost in those ten – actually twelve – vital minutes of the second half as the All Blacks worked their way into the Boks forty-metre area and Carter kicked his drop. Then Burger drove forward and lost the ball in contact, Aaron Smith moved the ball to the left, three on two, slick, quick passing (no spin passes!) and Barrett was over in the corner. Carter converted. From 12-7 to 17-12 in twelve minutes; lethal.
The All Blacks dominated from then on with a penalty taking them to 20 as we kicked two to take us to 18. Close? Statistically yes, realistically, no. We were only ever in this game because of indiscipline from the Kiwis. I am one among many who think the Boks played well throughout most of the tournament at forward, with some powerful scrumming, strong driving carries, good ruck ball and effective lineouts; defence too was solid. But, once the ball was won, this team was found wanting. There was no creativity, no joie de vivre, no flair, and little imagination. In the semi-final, there was one flash of excitement when Willie le Roux joined the line with perfect timing and gave a good pass to Kriel, who was in a gap. But Kriel fumbled the ball, checked, momentarily lost concentration, there was no support on his outside – where the hell was Pietersen? – and crashed into Ben Smith. Opportunity lost; how does the cliché go? It’s a game of small margins. This was one example.
The box-kick, I am pleased to note, is now used less frequently. But du Preez kicked two beauties for Habana early on, where we retained possession which, after all, should be the object of the exercise. Fine skills, but they are limited in their effect on the outcome. How often are tries scored from a box-kick unless it’s done to the corner flag? (Well, it isn’t done to the corner flag these days because the scrumhalf has hijacked the tactical kicking responsibilities of the flyhalf. Ask Naas Botha for an opinion. In my slightly biased view, it’s crazy. To state the obvious, the scrumhalf’s view of things is much more restricted than the flyhalf’s; the latter can see what’s going on.)
Throughout this World Cup, we failed to employ our impact players, in this case, Habana, Pietersen and le Roux, nearly enough. The mindset was too conservative all along, founded on fear of failure rather than on the exuberance of attack and possible success. (This became even more apparent after the disaster against Japan. How the hell did that happen? It’s still surreal.) Support play was erratic and at times, plain ‘lacking’.
My final observation is that our coaching staff lacked the ability to think ‘out of the box’; they lacked the faith to rethink strategy and tactics and then rethink again. To make just one point, if your backs can’t penetrate through running, then the grubber or chip becomes an essential part of your attacking armoury. The All Blacks tried seven grubbers in the first half in an attempt to score. John Mitchell’s comment at half time on TV was ‘they’ve overdone the grubber’. My reply: ‘ he’s dead wrong’. The number of grubbers wasn’t the problem. The problem is they kicked them very badly! Not a clue. Even the New Zealand backline coaches, it seems, don’t know that the successful grubber is kicked with the outside foot, virtually at full pace and should go no further than about ten paces.
For the Bok coaches there was little by way of what motivational gurus call ‘lateral thinking’, hence an absence of attention to detail. They retreated into the laager full of self doubt and with alacrity. ‘Play safe, boet. Circle the wagons.’
The Springboks’ basic skills among the backs were on the whole below par, passing uncertain, handling iffish, tactical kicking very poor. Pollard’s attempts were lamentable throughout. Has he ever been coached at tactical kicking? At school, club, provincial, international level? I’d say not. He’s been left to get on with it, so he kicks diagonals to the left with his inner, favoured right boot. Result? He never kicked one to the left accurately throughout the entire series of matches. Why? Because, as Naas Botha mentioned after the semi-final against New Zealand, to kick that diagonal/crosskick well, ‘he really has to be on his left foot.’ Elementary, my dear Botha! (Harry Birrell, St. Andrew’s College, Oxford University and Eastern Province, taught me that in an hour’s ‘tutorial’ on Lower Field when I was the Rhodes University flyhalf. He also taught me, in 1956 nogal, something they now call the ‘banana kick’; routine for me after his tuition. So now they’re reinventing the wheel.)
Last moan – why on God’s great earth, do the Springboks use a right-footer to kick line kicks to the right e.g. Lambie when they have le Roux with the left boot? Anybody with both eyes can see that 8 to 12 metres in distance are lost every time. Inexplicable but just another example of the broad brush approach.
Till next time. What a great game it is. I was privileged to play for 25 years, from the age of 8 for the de la Salle under Elevens in East London to the age of 33 for the national Rhodesian side against Eastern Province. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, broken limbs and all; two arms, one leg and ligaments torn off the lower back.
27 October 2015
Congratulations to the Lions on their magnificent season, capped by victory in the Currie Cup final. Now there’s a mindset to emulate, one based on basics, support and positive thinking. Thank you Johan Ackerman and his team – with a nod to John Mitchell who started it all a few years back – for showing us how rugby can be played. N.B.J