'Disappointing': Ex-Springboks captain laments South Africa's tactics
Ex-Springboks captain Jean de Villiers has labelled his former team’s attacking tactics against the All Blacks as “disappointing” following their defeat over the weekend.
The All Blacks defeated the Springboks 19-17 in their 100th test match against each other in Townsville on Saturday to clinch the Rugby Championship title for the first time since 2018 and retain the Freedom Cup for a 13th straight year.
Despite the hype and anticipation in the lead-up to the match, the stop-start affair was plagued by a bombardment of kicks made by South Africa as part of a game plan that stifled the exciting brand of rugby many hoped for.
Instead, Springboks halves pairing Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard incessantly put boot to ball in a bid to put New Zealand’s back three of George Bridge, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett under continual aerial pressure.
South Africa’s persistence to use the boot rather than attack with ball in hand was reflected in the match statistics, which showed the All Blacks made more than double the number of passes than the Springboks (142-66), who doubled the number of kicks made by the Kiwis (38-18).
The excessively negative tactics on show by the Springboks drew the ire of many onlookers, and that included de Villiers, the 109-test midfielder who was a key figure in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning squad.
In an interview with The Breakdown, the 40-year-old, who captained the Springboks in 37 tests, said South Africa could have actually beaten the All Blacks had they not made some “extremely poor” decisions with the game in the balance at the death.
“It was quite a titanic battle, as we expected in the 100th test match. I definitely think the Springboks could have won,” de Villiers told The Breakdown.
“They kind of had pretty good control of the game for 76 minutes with a debatable approach as to how they went about it.
“But, in the last four minutes, unfortunately I think the decision-making was extremely poor and eventually gave away possession that cost them conceding that penalty and ended up costing them the game.
“In these games, it’s so tight and those margins are small. You make the wrong decision, you lose the test match.”
De Villiers expanded on where he believed the Springboks went wrong as he highlighted their obsessive kicking mindset as a flaw in their tactical strategy.
“It is not the Springboks’ job to play rugby that suits the All Blacks.”
– Hamish Bidwell on why the Boks shouldn’t try to play attacking rugby to please the All Blacks. #NZLvRSA #RSAvNZL https://t.co/RbRZluvyPc
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 28, 2021
He said that while the Springboks have adopted a game plan that they are better at executing than the All Blacks, their “lack of ambition” in attacking areas of the field played a significant role in their loss.
“We’re not there in the mix deciding on what the approach is, as to how do you beat the All Blacks?” de Villiers said when asked if he was surprised by how much the Springboks opted to kick.
“You have a team of players with a certain skill set, then you have the opposition, then you decide how can you beat them, how can you be better than them on the day?
“The approach was obviously to get the ball in the air, apply pressure and then get turnovers from that. I think the lack of ambition, as you mentioned, when they were on attack, I think that was the disappointing thing.
“You put yourself in a position – yes, that strategy takes you to a certain area of the field – but then you need to be able to switch on, have the ambition to keep ball in hand and score tries, and I think that’s where I felt a bit disappointed in the approach.
“Again, if they went on and won the game, [made] two or three different decisions in those last four minutes and won the game, would you have spoken about it? I don’t know.
“The big question, though, is can they apply the same strategy this weekend and keep the All Blacks under pressure for 80 minutes, as they did last week? There’s a big question mark around that.”
De Villiers, who beat the All Blacks nine times in his career and was part of the 2009 Springboks team that swept New Zealand in that year’s Tri Nations, added that he would like to see South Africa use a slightly more expansive game plan in this week’s re-match on the Gold Coast.
He said many players in the current Springboks side are capable of playing an effective style of attacking rugby but aren’t being allowed to do so under the tactics being used by head coach Jacques Neinaber.
“A lot of the guys playing, who played on Saturday and I still played with, there’s no doubt they still have the skill set, so I think that ambition that we keep talking about, it’s fine having that [kick-heavy] strategy.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 27, 2021
“I think a lot of test matches that we won against the All Blacks, the same was applied, but it’s being able to switch on when the opportunity is on, when the opportunity is there to take the game by the scruff of the neck and keep ball in hand.
“That’s where you need to be able to switch on and just get out of that mindset. I think, again, that was the disappointing thing about the weekend.
“If they did that, they would have won the game, and then the strategy would have executed perfectly. It’s the lack of having that little bit of variation that I think is costing them in the big games, as we’ve seen in the last three weeks.”
In South Africa’s defence, de Villiers said the Springboks have endured a difficult time preparing for the All Blacks, and the Rugby Championship as a whole, by being away from home in what he described as a “bi-bubble”.
He noted the time away from friends and family for an extended period of time, and restrictions over what they have been able to do while on tour, has likely taken a toll on South Africa’s playing group.
“I think that is the difficult thing and, also, it needs to be taken into consideration, in preparation for playing in the Rugby Championship against the All Blacks, that I don’t think the preparation has been ideal,” he said.
“These players are sitting on close to three months in a bi-bubble where they haven’t been able to see their families, travelling away from home, not being able to see friends, literally moving from hotel to rugby field back to the hotel, and the mental effect on that, I believe, definitely has an effect on the field as well.
“You take all of that into consideration, then you take the strategy that was applied on the weekend, and I think a lot could have been better, a lot could have been different, but certainly all those things have an impact on the way that they are playing at the moment.”
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