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'Not the future of our game': Ex-All Black great on the Springboks style of play

By Ben Smith
Brodie Retallick of New Zealand reacts as he stands amongst the maul during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Former All Black great Sir John Kirwan believes that the Rugby World Cup winning Springboks could struggle to adapt to the new World Rugby laws, adding that their style is “not the future” of the game.


Despite winning back-t0-back Rugby World Cups, he didn’t believe they were “the standard” for the global game but stopped short of putting New Zealand as number one.

Kirwan’s passionate response came after former All Black winger Jeff Wilson claimed that South Africa were “top of the pile” after demolishing a young Welsh side a fortnight ago at Twickenham.

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Wilson explained to The Breakdown panel that the performance showed why the Springboks are the “ultimate challenge” for Robertson’s new All Blacks.

“That’s why when I compare our team, I’m going to compare them to the World Cup champions, because they are the ultimate challenge right now,” Wilson said on Sky Sport NZ’s The Breakdown.

“They are a different style but we have to be adaptable. If you watch the Springboks run all over the top [of Wales] the other day. We are not on top of the pile right now, we are chasing.”

“I disagree,” Kirwan interjected, “Let me ask you this, if the All Blacks in the second half of the Rugby World Cup final had been able to run the ball a wee bit more, and we can speed the game up with the new rules, do you think South Africa are going to be as effective?”


Wilson replied: “Yes, because they can do some things at source that other teams can’t do. You watch them and they’ve got a thing called a hybrid player.

“That’s why they can run a 6-2 bench when you’ve got a guy like Kwagga Smith. He’s covering the midfield because he’s played sevens.

“The way that they play, the dominance they’ve got. Did you see Evan Roos, the number eight, burst through the middle of the park? He was a beast. South Africa right now are the standard.”

The near full-strength Springboks led 14-13 at half-time over the plucky Wales side who were full of inexperienced players, before pulling away in the second half to win 41-13.


However, Kirwan was not convinced by South Africa’s change of play under new assistant Tony Brown, explaining that they have a style that works for tournament rugby but doesn’t produce a lot outside of the Rugby World Cup.

“I don’t think they are the standard mate,” Kirwan said.

“I think they know how to win World Cups right, but I don’t think they play a type of rugby that’s the future of our game,” he said.

“They play a style that is effective for them.

“Outside of World Cups, we probably win most of the time, but World Cups, they play a style of football that suits them, that is a winning style of football.

“We need to combat that, but we can’t be them.”

“That’s why I couldn’t believe how you just raved about South Africa for like five minutes,” Kirwan said.

The former All Black urged Scott Robertson to innovate over this cycle and change up a lot of what the side has been doing over the last decade.

Kirwan hinted that the power game may be the future after 140kg prop Pasilio Tosi was a suprise bolter selection.

Of the three 140kg players in New Zealand rugby, two of them are now in the All Blacks squad with Crusaders prop Tamiati Williams the other squad selection.

“I don’t think we can win the next World Cup unless we show some innovation,” he said.

“How long has everyone been doing pods? What’s the next innovation from the pod play that everyone does?

“Are we going to change the game through athletes, or through tactics and the technical side?

“Tamiati, his build, Tosi, that build I think is coming.  I think we’ve got four years to work this out.”



In this episode of Walk the Talk, Jim Hamilton chats with double World Cup winner Damian de Allende about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV


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David 18 days ago

Over many decades rugby has been ugly at times through one style or another- overuse of kicking, rolling mauls, pick and goes etc but then some team will revive the game with a special plan and rugby will become a joy to watch again. At different times France, Wales, Australia, NZ, Fiji have all fired up viewing pleasure. But SA have always been the same - relentless power and physical brutality - very hard to beat, as in W Cups, but rarely a pleasure to watch from a neutral pov. Unless of course that is your main reason to watch rugby.

Turlough 18 days ago

““I disagree,” Kirwan interjected, “Let me ask you this, if the All Blacks in the second half of the Rugby World Cup final had been able to run the ball a wee bit more, and we can speed the game up with the new rules, do you think South Africa are going to be as effective?””

What Kirwan conveniently forgets is that SA had a beast of a route to the RWC after the loss to Ireland. NZ lost to France had 5 weeks to prep for Ireland, then had a walkover Semi aginst Argentina. SA had to factor their squads fatigue into the final strategy and they won anyway. There was a more even playing field in the Twickenham test pre world cup and we saw the result there.

monty 18 days ago

Let’s sit back and see the outcome between bokkie and the iwish. Then we’ll see how adaptive one would need to be. I don’t think there’s going to be much in the way of surprises if any in fact.

Jacque 19 days ago

JK, always rambling on about “STYLE”. No one remembers what STYLE NZ played in 1987 WC or AUS in 99?

Sour grapes IMO.

JJGhost 19 days ago

I see the sheep have some more opinions, we’ll just have to braai them again later this year.

Shaylen 19 days ago

Right now the Springboks are the standard especially when you consider last year where they lost just 2 and won the rest. The Springboks won the world cup and are the number one team. While they are the standard as we saw in the world cup there are many teams that are close. The AB’s, France and Ireland are all at the same or similar level with only France showing signs of weakness without Dupont. SA is on top now but lets see who is on top in 12 months. In that time the AB’s will play SA twice as well as England, Ireland and France. SA will player Ireland twice, England away and the AB’s twice. All this will be done under the new law variations. We will see who is boss at the end of all that.

Craig 19 days ago

Nz skills and speed have always been good especially winning in the last 15min.
Now the boks have a proper coach and very fast wings which allows variations in play.

MattJH 19 days ago

Kirwan has this backwards.
At the end of the 7 week tournament, the Springboks were far more exhausted than they were at the end of a rugby championship or 3 match series.
The All Blacks had a plan of keeping the ball in play and running them off their feet, it didn’t work.
I don’t think it is at all realistic to expect the Boks won’t adapt to any law change.
Springboks have clearly showed the most innovation and they’ve just added Tony Brown to the coaching setup, that is all about the evolution of their game.
Also, Kirwan wonders about the giant athletes and is the power game going to be the future.
What exactly does he mean? Big forwards bashing the snot out the opposition with a strong set piece? I’m reasonably sure the Springboks are aware of this already.

Wayneo 19 days ago

Opinions are like assholes- everybody has one, except in New Zealand where they have more than one.

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