Well, the Springboks won their series against the Irish visitors by a margin of six points in the final match in Port Elizabeth last Saturday: 19 - 13. The game was hard-fought with set pieces more or less even. In the loose, both sides battled vigorously for possession, with no one fully in command.
A vital turning point in the match came in the first half when Jantjies executed a perfect diagonal kick for JP Pietersen to pluck out of the air in full gallop and go over. It was an exhibition of skill at the highest level. For the rest, the kicking of the home side was erratic. In today's Times newspaper, coach Allister Coetzee is quoted as saying, 'We need to be more accurate with our kicks.' Really? What have the coaches and players been doing for the last month? Not practising accurate kicking??
The mind boggles! As a school's rugby coach I used the system of rehearsing every eventuality when simply running the ball along the line did not do the trick. This meant using targets for grubbers - no more than ten metres so that the kicker could get to the ball first - diagonals over and over again, chip kicks executed with such delicacy that the kicker or his close ally could get the ball in front of the opposition. This is not rocket science. It's basic.
Clearly the skills of kicking are the most under-coached aspects of play. Take the Welsh side against the All Blacks. In the face of a rush defence from the New Zealanders, the Wales backline did not attempt ONE chip kick and only tried a grubber late in the second half and then this effort by Jonathan Davies went far too far to have any beneficial effect. Although the Wales team passed well, and gained possession in good places, they simply had no strategy for getting past an All Blacks resolute defence. It was 'men against boys'. I tried to think of a Wales player who would make the NZ 23-man squad and couldn't find one. So the final score of NZ 46 to Wales 6 accurately reflected the difference between the two teams on the day. One-way traffic.
Back to the Springboks vs Ireland game: the defence of both sides was very impressive. Perhaps the most vital tackle made in the final stages of the match when the Irish were attacking the Springbok fortress with wave after wave of raids towards the line, came when the ball went left, there was a two-on-one situation and Faf de Klerk, the plucky scrumhalf, made a decisive enveloping tackle on the ball-carrier. It saved a try, a try which would have been the winning try of the series. (A friend from Selborne days, Bob Douglas, phoned to say he thought Faf had illegally smacked the attempted pass down and so a penalty try should have been awarded to the Irish. I went back to review the match three times and saw no such thing. De Klerk tackled the man 'ball and all' as the saying goes. It was a piece of defensive brilliance.)
It seems Ruan Combrinck has cemented his place in the national side. Not only is he a balanced, fast and elusive runner, he now takes the kicks for the left hand touchline and goaled a mighty fifty metre penalty at crucial stage of the match. Before his arrival, we had to watch the amateur banana kicks of Jantjies with left boot down the left touchline. Maximum distance? About fifteen metres. Now the Springboks have a player with a strong right boot and so the team gains nearly three times as much ground.
Of course, if the coaches allow three players in critical positions to rely on their left foot skills to excess, errors are bound to happen. Jantjies, le Roux and de Klerk should be practising assiduously with their right boot kicks. Then the opposition cannot be sure of which way they will direct the ball or when, for example the box kick will be employed. At present it's so obvious which way the three of them are going to kick the ball. The aim of all tactical kicking is ball-retention and the opposition must be kept on the wrong foot by unpredictable use of the tactical kick. At present, opposing sides can read Jantjies, de Klerk and le Roux like an open book. The latter need their arses kicked really hard until they can kick equally well with either boot.
So far as our backline attacking skills are concerned, we have a long way to go. There has to be much more intensive thinking about a) how to break the line ala Crotty and Moala who step inside to straighten the line and then distribute wide b) the use of grubber and chip through rigorous practice c) creating the 'extra man', something England, Australia and New Zealand do brilliantly. There are signs we are using the blindside wings more, but we're miles behind the three teams mentioned above in this respect.
The England vs Australia match was a cracker! Final score: England 44 - Australia 40. There were some truly wonderfully executed tries. England won the game really because Owen Farrell kicked his penalties superbly. Or, to put it another way, Australia lost because of indiscipline in their own half: infuriating for any coach and more so it looked for the Wallabies' volatile coach, Michael Cheika. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, well on both of them! Then there was the terrible lineout throw from captain Stephen Moore five metres from his tryline. From the ensuing scrum Vunipola crashed over. That one mistake cost the Wallabies 7 points and they ended up losing by 4. The margins for error are very small.
As usual we had to watch the ongoing farce in all matches of the scrum ball being put in crooked behind the front-row and then watch with resignation as the slightest offline lineout throw was penalised. Talk about absurdity!