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Jake White: The Springboks' unanswered questions

By Jake White
South Africa's players react after losing the Autumn Nations Series rugby union test match between France and South Africa at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille on November 12, 2022. (Photo by Sylvain THOMAS / AFP) (Photo by SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Let me tell you a story. When we played France in Paris in November 2005. We lost by a score. The difference was an intercept try through Freddie Michalak, who ran in from 50m, after picking up a loose ball. End result 26-20. A one-score game.

I remember walking into the bowels of Stade de France changing rooms afterwards and understandably the boys were a bit glum. I looked around at the likes of Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, John Smit and Schalk Burger and said, ‘in two year’s time, we will be standing here in a circle in this very room and in the middle will be a World Cup, because that’s how close we came [to victory].’

I could feel something special in that room that night. I thought of that at the final whistle in Marseille. Back in 2005, I expected France to be in the latter stages of their own tournament, and 17 years on, I don’t see it being any different because if anything, Les Bleus are stronger again.

If you take away all the significant noise around the game, I thought South Africa were outstanding. From minute 12, with seven forwards, they took on a mighty French pack until the last play of the game and for the last 10 minutes they were down to 13-men, with six in the pack, after Deon Fourie was binned – that is something to be really proud of.

The coaches will be saying, ‘geez guys, if we get Handre (Pollard) back, Lood (de Jager) and Lukhanyo (Am) back, we can trouble anyone’.

Don’t forget RG Snyman, either. He will be a massive part of their game for the next generation. The reality is a full-strength Springboks be a much tougher proposition to beat next year.

The biggest tactical change I noticed, was that they showed in Marseille that they can play a different way. They picked a relatively lightweight back three, with Willie Le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who are basically small, agile guys, happy run it back to the half-way line, or go wide, instead of hoofing it. That in itself showed the public that there is another way South Africa can play, not just aerial battles and living off the scraps.

In the past, I’ve mentioned that the Boks would only change the way they play if they came up against a side who could beat them at their own game, but they’ve pre-empted that and shown they have the players to cause problems going around you, rather than through you.

One thing that was glaringly obvious to me from a rugby point of view was that when Jonathan Danty went off with a facial injury, they put a Sekou Macalou on the wing. He spent nearly 70 minutes there. I know he’s quick, but he was opposite one of the most dangerous wings in the game right now; Cheslin Kolbe. I think that was pre-arranged to put him out there because they simply didn’t see the Boks engineering opportunities out wide. Essentially, they were saying, ‘they’re not going to use their width, so we’ll just put an extra number in the defensive line’.

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Even though we played outstandingly well and put the ball through hands to keep the ball alive, I think we could have created more and exposed that left-wing a bit more. Perhaps, there’s a work-on to say, ‘why didn’t we expose them defensively, and make Macalou turn to chase kicks?’

There was certainly a lot of emotion flying around. Pieter Steph du Toit looked bereft on the bench after his red card so perhaps his squad were playing for him, because PSDT is not a dirty player. By the letter of the you can understand why it was a red card but he was a bit unlucky. The intent of both Du Toit and Damien de Allende going into the breakdown was yellow card-ish because both of those were going in low and hard with intent but it ended up with the wrong picture at the end of the cleanout.

That performance was the boys saying, ‘don’t worry, we’re playing this one for you’. That’s no bad thing, you need all the motivation you can get in a such hostile environment.

I would say that having watched Cheslin and Eben Etzebeth play, it’s almost like they understood the French psyche. They knew what they needed to do to make a statement and they both excelled – as if they had a point to prove. When Cheslin bounced Anthony Jelonch, you could hear the crowd taking a breath.

Makazole Mapimpi got the fright of his life by being left out, because he’s always been the automatic pick in recent years, and now he has two young wings like Arendse and Sbu Nkosi breathing down his neck. There’s nothing like a bit of competition to make players raise their levels and Faf de Klerk is the same. He’s seen young guys like Jaden Hendrikse coming through, and upped his game accordingly.

I would also say it’s an incredible stadium down in Marseille and the Springboks have Scotland there in the first game of the tournament, so it will be have been a useful experience. I’ve coached there in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup against Toulon with Montpellier and I was blown away. It was a proper cauldron.

Going to back to the off-field ‘noise’, I wouldn’t be surprised if World Rugby come out again and asks Rassie to be mindful of his social media use because I don’t think he’s doing himself any favours. I think he’s backed himself into a corner, because the cult-like following he thought he had is slowly turning. I don’t think they’re agreeing with how he is making his points through Twitter, because sarcasm rarely goes down well on there. To neutrals it looking biased and a little one-sided.

For all coaches, there is a fine line before you overstep the mark.

If we go back to unanswered questions on the rugby field, there’s fly-half being fielded who’s not really a fly-half, a fly-half not playing because he’s supposedly got mental health issues with his wife saying, ‘why’s he not being played, is he being punished?’ It’s turning into a bit of a soap opera.

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The show will, however, have to go on and the circus will roll into Genoa.

I’ve looked at the Boks line-up and would make two points. Firstly, it’s’ interesting to see they’ve reverted to the 6-2 bench split, after losing to France’s 6-2 bench last week, and they’ve stuck to their rotation policy by making changes in the second row and midfield, after two consecutive losses. That shows a confidence.

Having played Benetton and Zebre in the URC, there’s no doubt that that the days of you just pitching up, rolling Italy over and going home are gone. It’s no longer veni, vidi, vici.

What I think is happening is they are starting to get a taste of winning, and that’s dangerous for opponents. They’d only won 13 of their 114 Six Nations games and domestically you usually saw their sides propping up the Pro14 but with Benetton beating the Stormers last year, Benetton and Zebre are becoming competitive every week, it’s helping their national set-up. Like France, they have recruited external influences in the coaching set-up, with Kieran Crowley, their Kiwi head coach and South African, Marius Goosen in defence. In recent years, Franco Smith and Conor O’Shea has added their experience, and Paul Gustard added to the brains trust for a while.

When I was there with the Bulls, conversations were ongoing about player welfare, and how they rest their Test players to get the most out of them. They are taking their Test rugby far more seriously now and results are starting to come.

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Kieran Crowley has picked a young squad, with players like Stephen Varney and Ange Capuozzo, who are only going to get better. It’s amazing that their most capped player is Tommaso Allan, the only player to have passed 50 caps and he’s only 29. Don’t forget that their U20s have been a force in recent years and Crowley has brought them through as a group. He’s almost followed what Fabien Galthie did in 2020 after the World Cup by picking a young, talented squad without any historical baggage.

This is a great time to play South Africa too, because they have their backs against the wall. Remember, Italy beat South Africa before in 2016 and a couple of guys, like Padovani and Allan were in that squad.

Saying that, I can’t see the Springboks losing three games in a row. They will take the win however it comes so they can go into the England game with some momentum.

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