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Springboks' win for the ages a taste of their real identity

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images and AAP Image/Dave Hunt/photosport NZ)

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So the Springboks finally showed up and played one of the Test matches for the ages, in their last attempt against their Southern Hemisphere rivals for the year.

And that is what Test rugby should be. A high-paced, high-tempo, absorbing battle of nations that is a cut above any other other form of rugby. The Springboks’ 31-29 win over the All Blacks was the best game of the year so far, and clearly the best performance yet from the World Cup holders.

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In the 100th Test, the All Blacks deserved to lose and won an awful game that was anything but enjoyable.

In the 101st, the Springboks turned up true to themselves and finally took the game to the opposition, and thoroughly deserved the win by fighting for every inch right to the end. For the All Blacks, it was a contest they sorely needed and were second best.

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All Blacks coach and captain react to loss to the Springboks
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All Blacks coach and captain react to loss to the Springboks

After that performance the nonsense over incessant kicking being the Springboks ‘DNA’ is over, that is, if you ever believed that garbage company line in the first place.

The real fabric of South African Rugby was finally back last night: never taking a step back, bashing over your opposition with the ball, smashing them back in defence and ripping apart rucks with a bullying attitude.

All of it was done at a speed that has been completely absent so far this season. There was the typical scrummaging, mauling and balanced kicking, but with the pace of the game, there was finally the intensity that has been missing.

With the All Blacks up 20-14 in the first half, the Springboks arrested the game in the second to pull back the deficit. From the moment Jordie Barrett pushed an offload forward from a counter-attack early in the second half, South Africa took control.

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There was finally a feeling that they had power over the All Blacks as the game approached the final quarter. Despite last week’s close result, South Africa never troubled them in Townsville. They took the lead at times but the game never got going and the All Blacks were stuck in second gear and never tested for long.

On the Gold Coast, when the All Black attack started going backwards in the final quarter and Brad Weber could not for the life of him get clean ball, the Springboks finally had the power that comes with being on top physically and mentally.

The moment you know you have your opponent in trouble. The closest the All Blacks got to getting a try in the second half was off the back of two piggyback penalties before Asafo Aumua’s ill-fated throw, which was pinched from the critical line out five metres out.

They were finally intent on taking the game to the opposition right from the start, pushing the All Blacks and themselves to the limits; there was none of the embarrassing slow-it-down, time-wasting tactics and the one-ruck one-kick ratio.

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Surely the Springbok players had had enough of being asked to play that way and do things that are counter-intuitive to any competitive instinct.

It took for the Springboks to nearly lose everything that was up for grabs to finally start playing for something.

Nelson Mandela plate? Gone. Rugby Championship title? Gone. Freedom Cup? Never had it. First run at number one on the world rankings for this squad? Over after two losses to the Wallabies.

What was left? Perhaps pride and ego and certainly not any expectations.

From the outside, the Springboks approach to the Rugby Championship came from a place of comfort with a defensive mentality. Content with a Lions series victory, they ostensibly adopted a ‘We are on top, so we must hold the challengers at arm’s length’ mentality.

‘We know what we do and we will keep doing it’ was the message from the camp. ‘It works,’ we were told. The Springboks went ultra-conservative at times, a world away from the style of rugby that won them the World Cup, bringing some of their Lions series tactics Down Under.

But with every title, you aren’t defending it. Every season you start from the bottom of the mountain alongside every other team. You don’t stay at the top. It’s a fresh race to the peak all over.

There is nothing to defend, only new titles to win.

Squads are refreshed, with new coaches and new styles of play. South Africa was steadfast in sticking to the basis of their World Cup team even after form drops.┬áTheir ‘DNA’ had mutated into a very odd strain.

Only when they finally had nothing more to lose or gain in this tournament, with all the trophies already in the winner’s pockets, did they finally take the shackles off and play a natural game to suit. And they finally reached a higher level within themselves not seen yet this year and got a great result, a relief win that would’ve felt extraordinary.

So why did it take this long for the world to get the best of the Springboks?

This must be who they are and love to be, the underdog, under fire from everywhere with the backs-to-the-wall where they are free from the weight of expectations.

We were even told the priorities were the World Cup, every four years, and the Lions series, every twelve. Who cares what happens in between, right? Why don’t you just pack the bags for France now and forget about turning up in 2022?

The All Blacks want to win everything, everywhere, against everyone. They wanted six from six and will not be satisfied ending with five. The Springboks went three from six overall and wanted to get a statement win against the All Blacks.

Who is feeling satisfied and who isn’t right now?

The All Blacks with their loss will likely take an introspective approach in their review. It will be used to shape change in the cycle of progress and continuous improvement. It will ultimately be used by the squad as a tool for good.

Are the Springboks content and happy with their big last hurrah of the tournament, going out in a blaze of glory?

With that magnificent win, the World Cup holders finish third, below Australia and below New Zealand with a 50 per cent win record in The Rugby Championship for 2021.

So the team that tried to rely on fifty-fiftys for most of the competition finished at 50 per cent. Go figure.

Which is nothing more or less than their historical results, with 22 wins, four draws, and 22 losses in the Rugby Championship since it’s beginning in 2012.

It was a different version than they are used to, they only got to play two games at home, one more than the All Blacks, while the Pumas got the short straw again with none.

Not to go empty-handed, they earnt a second chance at wearing the crown again as the number one team, where the underdog tag disappears and expectations start to build again.

Will the Springboks be pumped up with heavy expectations again? Will the mythology be built up once more, with stories of this great win going on and on in the month to come?

Will the talk start about sweeping Wales, Scotland and England on a glorious end-of-year tour?

All while hoping the ending to this story isn’t the same as before.

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Springboks' win for the ages a taste of their real identity

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