Jake White: The Springboks' million dollar question
Saturday was do-or-die. The Springboks let one slip slip and lost for the first time in history at home to Wales in Bloemfontein, so there was no escaping it, they had to win.
If you add the emotion of Eben Etzebeth’s 100th game, and Bongi’s 50th game to the hurt from that loss, it all came out in that first 10 minutes.
From the kick-off, you could see there was no way Wales were going to win that game. Everyone was switched on. When Kieran Hardy bolted through the middle early on and Eben flattened him, that was statement made. I was in the stands and when I looked around, I could feel a spark of electricity from that tackle, even if didn’t have a bearing on the game.
After making so many changes in the Second Test, it was no surprise the big guns rolled out and Wales, who had injury problems of their own, simply had no answer at the scrum and lineout. Once South Africa got into their 22, and got three penalties in a row, they laid down a marker for what was going to happen for the rest of the game. It’s crazy to think the Boks have Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch on the bench – boys who would start in any other international front row on the bench – so it’s intimidating. When the Wales scrum started retreating you really feared for them.
The Series has been far from perfect for the Boks but one place they have so much depth is at lock. Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager are world class locks but behind them I think RG Snyman is going to be one of the best players in the world when he’s fit. Just you watch. His aerial, ball and contact skills, as well as the fact he’s got a huge engine mark him out as a freak. Luckily we’ve also got Franco Mostert on the bench who can play at 6 and at lock. One player to watch out for is Jason Jenkins. Once he fits into Leinster’s pattern of playing, he has the game to improve them further. With the way Leinster prepare players, I’ve got no doubt he is going to improve massively. The increased competition drives standards.
I must say a word about Eben. I know Bakkies Botha very well, and in my eyes he’s still one of the greatest locks to play for the Springboks, but for Eben to be the youngest Test cap centurion in a country obsessed by rugby is phenomenal. We produce such good locks that they pop up all over the world – just look at Paul Willemse and the role he’s playing with France. To be the seventh Springbok to reach 100 caps is an incredible achievement.
I know there’s lots of chat about the Springboks and there always will be but looking at the Boks recent results, it’s clear they have a tried and tested formula that works for this group of players. If you go into a highly-pressured World Cup, you can be sucked into playing in a style of play you’re not comfortable with. I remember in Australia in 2003, there was a lot of talk about England being boring. The local press were almost baiting them to change their game in the final but Clive (Woodward) never deviated from his gameplan. Greenwood and Tindall through the middle, Hill and Dallaglio carrying and Martin Johnson thundering around the corner. If they weren’t sure what to do, they chucked it to Wilkinson who booted it down the field. It was simple but it landed them the World Cup.
Obviously we’ve seen Ireland playing a different brand of rugby to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but the Springboks won’t change. Is it going to be good enough? That’s the million dollar question.
At the moment, I’d say France are the No 1 team in the world, even if they’re not official No 1. They’ve won their last 10 Tests in a row, which is pretty impressive, and they have a massive pack which means they can play it both ways; with natural flair and raw power.
It makes you think Les Bleus have the tools to stop the Springboks’ mauling and set-piece game which is predictable but effective. Look at the Third Test. It was a picture of how the Boks play in a microcosm. Wales would be on the attack in the 22. When they lost a lineout it would be a scrum South Africa.
They would then invariably win a penalty, hoof the ball to the halfway line and then win a maul penalty, before kicking the ball into the 22 where they’d switch to attack-mode without doing too much. That’s a 60m gain. Now, if a side can stop them doing that – and there are sides who can – I’m not sure if that will be enough if the Boks don’t have other ways to win the game.
Tied into that is talk about the Boks’ creative game and whether they can do more. I’d say the structure is pretty rigid. They kick the ball, and if they get it back, switch on to see if they can create something. That’s where players like Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi come into play. The duo thrive in broken-field play when a defence is disorganised but we don’t see too much of them because all sides have massively improved in the air. Individuals work so so hard at it in training. Damian Willemse caught some great balls in the air, and so did Cheslin, but then Wales are no different. Dan Biggar and Liam Williams picked out some great kicks.
The way South Africa plays actually keeps other sides in the game. You seldom see them running away on the scoreboard. They squeeze, squeeze and squeeze until you can no longer withstand the physical onslaught, whereas when Ireland got to 22-3 up by the break, I just knew they were never going to lose that game, in what was a stunning Series victory.
Looking ahead, I foresee some changes with the All Blacks before they come to South Africa in a few weeks so Springbok rugby fans can’t read too much into those results. That is ominous for us. Reading between the lines, change is afoot and I don’t think either there will be the same management or the make-up of that team coming to South Africa. Rugby is one of New Zealand’s biggest cultural exports and they are simply too strong, and too obsessed with where they need to be to allow what’s happening to continue. Four defeats in their last five games is almost unheard of in the professional era. I expect there to be repercussions
Ireland are the current darlings of world rugby but they are a curious case. They have probably been the most disappointing side at the World Cup, never making it past the quarter-finals, which is bizarre because they are so good in-between World Cups. Winning in New Zealand, however, means they are going to be a massive force in France. They have that in the memory banks now and Andy Farrell has shown himself to be a very astute head coach.
It’s almost ironic that they may not have to play the All Blacks until the final, and it is the sides they potentially play before who have given them more trouble. In recent history, they have been outmuscled by France and England.
After the Rugby Championship, I feel the Autumn Tests will be the true benchmark of where the Springboks are on their progression. The Boks will play France, Ireland and England for the last time before the World Cup. France are now one of the favourites for the World Cup, Ireland can now back themselves, while England under Eddie Jones have continually said, ‘measure us at the World Cup’. The end of year tour is huge, because it will be a strong indication of which group of players he will takes to France.
Nienaber said the Second Test was a trial for who goes to Europe but I expect a few old faces to be in the mix for the end of year Tests. Cobus Reinach will brought back in alongside Duane Vermeulen, who has definitely been missed, and RG Snyman.
There is another guy who could surprise people; Johan Goosen. He is at the Bulls and though he’s been injured, after watching the current 10s, I feel he could be a catalyst of change. He plays in a different way to the current gameplan but that may actually help him find a space in the squad.
There are tweaks to be made, but overall South African rugby is in great shape. I never worry about the Boks because we always have such strength in depth. Just look at the U20s in the summer series and our Blitzbokke in the Sevens. It’s all enabled by our incredible schools system, which is probably the strongest in the world. Paarl Gymnasium is the ministry of rugby and you have places like Paul Roos, Grey College, KES and Jeppe in Johannesburg. The future is bright.