Springboks will rue benching the man who single-handedly dismantled the All Blacks
In the wake of the Springboks’ 26-10 win over the All Blacks at Mbombela Stadium – their largest over the New Zealand outfit since 1928 – much has been made of how comprehensively the home side outplayed the down-on-their-luck visitors.
Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s apparent that for the first time in an All Blacks match this year, the score didn’t really reflect the contest.
Make no mistake – this is an All Blacks side lacking structure, strategy and confidence – but there’s good reason to believe that this weekend’s fixture at Ellis Park might not finish in the Springboks’ favour.
There isn’t a player in New Zealand – or perhaps the world – that could reignite the All Blacks’ faltering attack right now. Whatever team Ian Foster rolls out for the fixture, most changes in personnel are likely to have little to no impact on how well the team performs in open play in Johannesburg.
There is, however, a personnel change on South Africa’s side of the ledger that could lead to a significant change in fortunes.
After a world-class performance in Mbombela in what was his 50th Test, the indomitable Malcolm Marx has been relegated back to the bench for this weekend’s rematch.
After staking a claim as one of the top hookers in the game throughout the formative stages of his Test career, Marx found himself redeployed at the final stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup as a bench specialist for the Springboks.
It’s a role that Marx has taken well to and the one-two punch that South Africa have been able to call upon between him and Bongi Mbonambi in the crucial hooker position will go down in history as one of the best the game has ever seen.
Marx and Mbonambi are two very different players with vastly different skill sets, however, and Marx’s ability over the ball at the tackle was on full display in Mbombela.
On four occasions, Marx was able to force turnovers at the breakdown. In two instances, the Springboks were awarded penalties while the other occasions simply resulted in a change of possession.
“That’s one of the keys to the Test match, our inability to get enough momentum going,” said All Blacks captain Sam Cane following the defeat.
“Malcolm Marx is particularly [good] getting over the ball. Normally it comes down to the ball carrier winning the collision and then snapping the ball back, long placement, but particularly the cleaners were almost half a second off and he was winning that race. Once he gets in a strong position over that ball, he’s probably one of the toughest in the world to move.”
While the All Blacks have looked devoid of any incisive attacking structure over the better part of the last year, they have managed to hold onto possession long enough to create half opportunities for their more dangerous ball players. The likes of Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea have all profited from taking advantage of the smallest of opportunities to create scoring chances for their side. It’s not an ideal tactic, but it’s one that does pay dividends simply thanks to the individual abilities of some of those players.
On Saturday, however, long strings of possession were few and far between for the men in black – and Marx was a key factor in disrupting New Zealand ball, even when he wasn’t directly producing turnovers or penalties.
The Springboks are a side that play best from in front, when they can apply scoreboard pressure, force errors and encourage their opposition to overplay their hand, and Malcolm Marx gave them the perfect platform to work from last weekend.
This Saturday, Joseph Dweba will step into the No 2 jersey after Mbonambi was initially named in the role but succumbed to injury during the week. Marx will provide his breakdown work off the bench but undoubtedly in a smaller capacity than the 55 minutes he managed at Mbombela.
It’s a curious move from Jacques Nienaber, shifting Marx back to the reserves. Some will suggest that Marx’s stint in the No 2 jersey was a way of rewarding him for hitting the 50-cap mark but there’s little room for sentiment in Test rugby. If Nienaber had already identified that the All Blacks lacked security at the breakdown and elevated Marx on that basis, it paid off in a big way. Why, then, would he drop the turnover tyro to the bench after such a strong showing?
Marx may have reinvented himself as a bench specialist in recent years but past preconceptions that his best work comes when the opposition are tired and worn down should not dictate his place in the 23 when he’s just performed a one-man destruction derby on the All Blacks’ possession stats.
It’s a decision that could come back to haunt a Springboks side that – like their opposition – couldn’t really construct a try to save themselves.
Both of South Africa’s scores came off the back of All Blacks errors, with the first a product of Beauden Barrett coughing up a high ball and the second thanks to a drop from Shannon Frizell just outside his 22. The All Blacks’ one try came from similarly freakish circumstances – a Caleb Clarke tackle bust and linebreak with Frizell following up to dot down from the breakdown.
Neither team was actually able to put together the phases and put enough pressure on their opposition to break through the defensive line. For all the talk of the Springboks’ destructive ball-carriers, they managed just 88 metres with ball in hand – only six more than the All Blacks. The Springboks didn’t struggle to get into the All Blacks’ 22, but they did struggle to convert that territory into points, and it’s really down to their work at the breakdown and at scrum time that they were able to build some ascendency and put scoreboard pressure on NZ.
In that vein, there are two changes that the All Blacks could make for this weekend that would give them a better chance at victory, and that’s in the front row. Neither George Bower nor Angus Ta’avao are known for their scrummaging ability and three penalties at the set-piece on Saturday affirmed that they were perhaps not the best men to suit up against the Springboks.
Once Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax entered the fray in the second half, the scrum shored up considerably and after both players were omitted from the July squad, they may well have earned themselves starting roles this weekend. If Foster really wants to gain parity, however, he’ll throw uncapped 22-year-old Fletcher Newell into the deep end on the tighthead side of the scrum and probably also afford loosehead Aidan Ross a spot in the 23 to support De Groot and Lomax.
With greater consistency at scrum time and Malcolm Marx off the pitch, the All Blacks would have been able to almost half their penalty count from the first Test, and seriously limited the Springboks’ ability to tick over the scoreboard and exert pressure.
It might be far too much to ask for the All Blacks’ attack to suddenly click at Ellis Park on Saturday evening but if last weekend’s fixture is anything to go by, they actually don’t need their attack to click to beat the Springboks. The home team will rightfully go into the match as favourites – especially with the braying South African fans giving the All Blacks hell from the stands – but the Springboks aren’t a side that are 16 points better than their opposition; the most recent result was an anomaly, not a yardstick for where the two teams sit.
Remember it was only last month that the Springboks struggled to put away a Welsh side that had somewhat embarrassingly lost their prior match, ending Italy’s run of 36 defeats in the Six Nations – a Welsh side that was also categorically thumped by 38 points in their more recent match with the All Blacks last October.
The Springboks have a slew of world-class players at their disposal and a game plan that suits their strengths but if the All Blacks can tighten up their game in the opening 20 minutes – which starts by holding onto the ball and not coughing up possession at the breakdown and the scrum – they’ll be able to give the home side a run for their money.
A win at Ellis Park likely won’t change coach Foster’s fate – and it won’t necessarily indicate that the All Blacks have made any massive gains since last weekend’s almost-historic defeat – but with the X-factor and talent at their disposal, a lucky bounce of the ball could be enough to swing the result in their favour.
It might be too much to ask for the All Blacks to turn their season around completely against the Springboks on Saturday and rebirth themselves as a fresh new side with the structure and poise to beat the best in the business, but a win certainly isn’t out of the question. Based on last weekend’s clash, it should not even come as a surprise.
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