Ditch the stereotype: This Springboks team can play
On Saturday, shortly after his team had trampled over England, Jacques Nienaber attended a press conference with a satisfied look on his face. It wasn’t just that he’d become the first Springboks coach to claim a victory at the self-appointed ‘Home of Rugby’ in eight years. It wasn’t just that he had silenced a few critics and earned their respect after a one-sided thumping. That smirk that never quite left his lips had a clear message: ‘Look out world. My boys can play’.
South Africa were brilliant in all the ways you’d have expected them to be. Frans Malherbe put on an masterclass at the scrum. Eben Etzebeth underlined his claim to being the best second-rower on the planet. And Franco Mostert, a Swiss Army Knife of a player, was equally effective in the loose and around the tight channels.
But further back, in areas of the pitch that Springboks fans have looked at longingly, hoping for magic but seeing nothing but pragmatism, some jet-heeled conjurers were casting spells. Whisper it quietly but the Springboks backline is cooking. Scratch that. Sing it from the rooftops. This is a rugby side that can hurt you in more ways than one.
Of course, they’re not alone. Ireland, France, New Zealand, and yes, even England, have the infrastructure to marry brute force with pretty patterns out wide. But because it is the Springboks who tore the English to ribbons (a week after doing the same to a confident Italian side), we should spend a little longer dissecting this newfound addition to their arsenal.
This is akin to discovering a white rhino that also possesses razor-sharp claws. Or a buffalo that hunts lions at night. Watching a Springboks backline run amok challenges our understanding of nature. There is obviously enough evidence from the past to shift our perception. Andre Joubert, Jean de Villiers and Henry Honiball spring to mind as show-stopping backs. But some theories have calcified to the point that even after such a resounding win this weekend, one columnist on this very website can still label the Boks as “boring”.
This is not an attempt to dramatically shift the discourse. One can’t convince all the people all the time. But only the most pigheaded witness could deny that something special is brewing behind the indomitable Springboks pack.
Willie le Roux is at the heart of it. He has bafflingly fought for recognition and acceptance ever since he made his international debut in 2013. Some have said he’s too slow, too weak, too inconsistent, too susceptible under the high ball. Even during the World Cup victory of 2019 there were fans and commentators who were calling for his head.
Those dissenting mouths have been closed. At 33 he is playing the best rugby of his career. He’s at fullback, then at first-receiver, then orchestrating a counterattack, then pulling centres into position for an offensive play several phases down the road. To call him a general would be an understatement. Go and watch every Springbok try scored by a backline player in the last four years. There’s a good chance le Roux has made the final pass in at least 80% of them.
He’s not alone. This column has questioned Damian Willemse’s credentials as a Test fly-half. I still hold some reservations but his performance on Saturday stuffed my previous assertions right down my throat. He was calm and composed. Assured of his role, patient with ball in hand, explosive when he needed to explode. He made a strong claim to keep his starting position until the World Cup next year.
As did Kurt-Lee Arendse, who skinned Marcus Smith to dot down his seventh try in six consecutive Tests. He lit up a soggy Twickenham with every touch of the ball, wriggling past defenders and dancing through half gaps.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 26, 2022
What will Nienaber do when all the absentees are once again available? Does Handre Pollard walk back into the side? Goal kicking is a concern without him and his all-round play puts him in the conversation with regards to the most complete No 10 in South Africa’s history. And yet, would his reintroduction destabilise what is clearly a working combination?
And what about Cheslin Kolbe? Arguably the most dazzling player on the planet, his position is also under threat. Given Makazole Mapimpi’s added heft and surety under the high ball, it would mean a straight shootout between Kolbe and Arendse. Does form matter more than seniority?
Then there’s Lukhanyo Am, one half of the best centre combination in the world, according to World Rugby, who combines dazzling skill with defensive nous to go along with Damian de Allende’s direct running.
In reserve is Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Canan Moodie and the incandescent Manie Libbok, who only a fortnight ago put on an exhibition at fly-half rarely seen by a man wearing the leaping antelope.
The Springboks backline has never had more depth, more variety or more potency than it does right now. They’ve never seemed more capable and willing to give the ball air, to attack the space rather than the defender in front of them or to launch an offensive from little more than the inkling of a chance.
For this Nienaber deserves credit and the respect he said his team seldom receives from outsiders. He has overseen a transformation that none of his predecessors have accomplished. What’s more, he’s done this without sacrificing the founding principles of South African rugby.
They’re still behind France and Ireland, and are just about level with New Zealand on World Rugby’s rankings. That is a fair reflection of the power structures in the global game. But if they are to become the first team to lift the World Cup for a fourth time next year, they’ll do so with a team that has more than enough guile to go with their trademark grunt.
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