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Thanks but no thanks, the All Blacks do not need to copy the Boks

By Ben Smith
Richie Mo'unga of New Zealand runs in a try during the Rugby Championship test match between New Zealand and South Africa played at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on July 15, 2023. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY / AFP via Getty Images)

The Springboks have not found a foolproof recipe for World Cup success that the All Blacks need to follow under Scott Robertson.

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The Boks are a tough, gritty, resilient side that work hard and bring a relentless defence and rely on a healthy dose of luck. The games with them are nearly always close.

After riding their luck through two knockout wins over France and England, they were spoiled by fortuitous circumstances for a third straight game.

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The 12-11 win in the final over New Zealand came against a team down to 14 men for a combined 64 minutes after Frizell was sin-binned for falling on the leg of an opposition player and Cane was red carded for a rising tackle.

Losing hooker Bongi Mbonambi to injury for the match was indeed a massive blow, South Africa’s lineout turned to a malfunctioning mess with flanker Deon Fourie throwing, but the undeniable absence of a player for 80 per cent of the World Cup final had a much greater impact.

The All Blacks played a man down for the majority of the game but still nearly won. That’s everything you need to know. One side had to cling on for dear life against an undermanned opponent, the other only lost due to their own mistakes, irrespective of the cards.

The night’s events unfolded with one side on the receiving end of some fantastic good fortune in the first half.

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The Frizell incident cost the All Blacks a cheap three points inside two minutes and a man off the field for 10 minutes.

The second three-pointer for South Africa came after a sustained period of attack that deservedly won a penalty when Ethan de Groot didn’t roll away.

The third was a dubious call on Ardie Savea that Barnes admitted on the mic he “didn’t see the replay”.

It was by all accounts a textbook pilfer, hands on the ball with body weight supported by feet. The clean couldn’t disrupt Savea’s position. Instead of an All Blacks penalty, it was three more cheap points for South Africa.

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Six of the first nine points were leprechauns’ gold, most teams would have loved to got those. By this point the rugby gods had blessed this side more than they deserved.

Minutes earlier the bounce of the ball gave South Africa a big break when Jordie Barrett’s chip kick found an empty backfield inside the 22.

The ball bounced out of the path of the leading chaser Ardie Savea, into the path of fullback Damian Willemse, seemingly saved by divine intervention.

The bounce of the ball cost the All Blacks a definitive two points, possibly four, with the rather straightforward conversion. They settled for a penalty goal.

But the coup de grace was still to come, Sam Cane’s first red card as a professional player that handed the Springboks an early Christmas present.

You see many of the innocuous moments that saved the Springboks’ bacon in Paris were largely out of their control. They had no sway over the bounce of Jordie Barrett’s chip, Sam Cane’s tackle height or Barnes’ view of Savea’s poach.

So when you look at what to copy from South Africa’s plan, you might as well buy some ladybugs, horseshoes, a four-leaf clover. Anything else that you think might bring the same amount of incredulous luck that this team was blessed with.

How many rabbit’s feet do you need to own for a TMO to operate outside their jurisdiction and overturn a try past four phases? Or for Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett to miss two potential lead-taking kicks? Or for a time-wasting warning to not go punished on a scrum feed?

Sure, every team would rather be lucky than unlucky, but to copy South Africa’s approach based on three one-point wins that could have fallen any way is totally senseless.

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Jacques Nienaber now holds one of the best coaching record against the All Blacks in recent memory, with four wins from seven since his time as “head coach” from 2021-23. Rassie Erasmus finished with one win from four in his short stint as official head coach from 2018-19.

They have re-ignited the rivalry to be competitive, but combined they have five wins from 11, still less than a 50 per cent win rate against the All Blacks despite winning two Rugby World Cups.

They haven’t been able to post a winning record over the All Blacks and now Robertson is supposed to copy them? Spare us.

New Zealand rugby made the mistake of chasing South Africa’s style a long, long time ago, adopting 10-man rugby and becoming obsessed with size and power up front to match theirs.

The 1937 shock loss at home to the Springboks led powerbrokers at the time to believe the falsehood that 15-man rugby wouldn’t beat South Africa again.

It was an identity struggle for three decades until the 1967 All Blacks broke the shackles, taking the world by storm with attacking rugby and re-finding the national identity.

Over the professional era the All Blacks have dominated South Africa. The overall record is 44-1-19 in New Zealand’s favour since 1996.

1998 and 2009 are the only years since where the Springboks have been able to hold the All Blacks winless.

Thanks but no thanks, New Zealand does not need to copy South African rugby.

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