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Play some rugby? You must be joking, the Springboks can't play any footy

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by Michael Chambers / www.photosport.nz)

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It is not the Springboks’ job to play rugby that suits the All Blacks.

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South Africa have no moral duty to the game or to sponsors and other stakeholders to produce a brand of football that’s easy on the eye. The job of coach Jacques Nienaber and company is to win, by whatever means rugby’s laws allows them.

We’ve adopted a rather superior tone here in New Zealand. Not only do we believe the All Blacks are better than everyone else, we assume the right to determine the right way to play as well.

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Eben Etzebeth on facing the All Blacks haka | Rugby Championship
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Eben Etzebeth on facing the All Blacks haka | Rugby Championship

We’ve harrumphed about the spectacle in the Springboks’ series win over the British & Irish Lions and condemned their box-kicking and time wasting in the 19-17 loss to New Zealand on Saturday night.

Well, let’s just rewind a couple of weeks. Are our memories so short that we don’t recall how bad South Africa were in their two losses to Australia?

Play some rugby? You must be joking. The Springboks can’t play any footy. That’s why the Wallabies pulled their pants down twice.

They tried to play and couldn’t and, after the humiliation of that, you can hardly criticise them for reverting to type against the All Blacks.

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Besides, it’s an effective tactic – as Ireland showed against New Zealand in Dublin in 2018 – and in line with what rugby’s lawmakers have provided for us.

It’s not up to the Lions or Springboks or Ireland or whoever to play attractive rugby, it’s up to administrators to build a framework where there’s reward for that type of football.

More broadly, sport needs contests – not spectacles – and that’s why I enjoyed Saturday night so much.

Rory McIlroy might have been moved to tears by this year’s Ryder Cup, but I was bored to tears by it. Within a few holes of day one, you could see it wasn’t going to be a contest.

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The NRL ruined their competition this year by tinkering with the laws. It wasn’t a question of whether Team A would beat Team B, just whether it was by 30, 40 or 50 points.

Think back to New Zealand’s three-test cricket tour to Australia a summer or two ago and what a crushing disappointment that was. The Black Caps were never in the contest and the series became an exercise in futility.

We need uncertainty about results, we need divergent styles and we need to see teams adapt to their circumstances.

We all know how effective the All Blacks are when the opposition lays down and plays dead. We know of their counter-attacking prowess and athleticism and we know how well they execute their skills at pace and under fatigue.

What we didn’t know was how they would cope when the game didn’t pan out that way. We didn’t know if they could adapt when Plans A and B weren’t working.

On Saturday, the All Blacks had to play in a way that wasn’t of their choosing and yet they won. For that, you’d have to say it was the finest performance of coach Ian Foster’s tenure.

The Springboks imposed their will on that match. They brought New Zealand down to their level and, rather than being scorned for that, they should be celebrated.

If the All Blacks want to play their brand of rugby this week, then it’s up to them to dictate that. That’s how rugby has always been.

You might want to play a certain way, but it’s in our best interests not to let you.

The Lions did that to the All Blacks in 2017, as did Ireland a year later. England have done it a time or two. That’s excellent coaching and execution of the game plan.

On a side note, it didn’t feel as if the Adidas ball helped a great deal last Saturday night.

Andrew Merhtens famously called a yellow iteration of it “a lemon’’ 20 years ago and not a lot’s changed.

Aerodynamically, the ball appears to do weird things in the air, whether you’re kicking from the hand or off the tee. As much as the pressure kick-chasers were able to exert in Townsville, some of the drops seemed to be a result of the ball itself.

Let’s just give the boys a Gilbert and let them get on with it.

I hope the Springboks play the same way this week and I’d like to think the All Black would again be able to adapt and prevail. The game might not prove the embodiment of rugby at its finest, but it should be a contest.

If we want better rugby, then it’s up to the lawmakers to give us a game where the attacking team can actually recycle the ball in contact and build a few phases.

As it is now, the box kick sadly remains your best bet.

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Play some rugby? You must be joking, the Springboks can't play any footy

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