The big picture risk totally lost on the Springboks' honchos
Sour grapes over refereeing calls by Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus has highlighted just how lost the Springboks are tactically as they come to grips with a game philosophy that simply has not delivered long-term greatness.
Drowning in the micro details of uncontrollable events on a rugby field, where interpretations will always vary, is like the rat who furiously runs on a spinning wheel but gets nowhere.
During this unproductive spiral of nitpicking which happens seemingly after every loss, the Springboks’ current top brass have failed to understand the biggest strategic risk of them all: That their own style of play leads to these outcomes which we have seen play out time and time again.
By design, they have set themselves up to fail constantly, unbeknownst to themselves.
It is the ‘big picture’ risk that has flown over their heads while studying the ruck interpretations or psychological profile of their next referee.
In one of his spilt milk tweets, Erasmus lamented the ‘small margins’ that can decide a rugby test. Yes, but this is largely because of your own doing. It doesn’t have to be by small margins.
The All Blacks smashed Wales 55-23 a few weeks ago. It wasn’t decided by small margins, the contest was over well before the game was. No one refereeing call in the game mattered.
This was the same Welsh team that toured South Africa in July, that nearly tipped over the Boks in the first Test despite being down three players, and the team that won for the first time on South African soil in the second.
When Ireland themselves beat New Zealand on home soil in July, they did so by nine points in the second test and 10 points in the decider.
They did so by relentlessly pursuing tries and successfully putting the game out of reach for the All Blacks, with enough room to weather any storms along the way.
When you reduce a game of rugby to stoppages, scrums and mauls, kick the ball away excessively, and put the ball in the hands of the opposition constantly, you start to lose control of a number of outcomes.
If you don’t want the ball, you are at the whim of the referee or opposition to give it back to you, if you can’t get it back yourself.
Playing a slow grind of a game also chews away so much clock that neither side can really get going, thus keeping scores close all the way to the end.
If you then need to rely on a referee to blow the whistle in your favour when it matters, there is a large degree to which the result is now out of your hands.
The Springboks had a great defence at their peak, but no matter how many hits you make behind the gain line or how many rucks are pressured, it doesn’t get rewarded with points.
When you show limited to no desire to break down a defence with ball-in-hand and score tries, relying mainly on penalty goals, you don’t put the game out of reach.
The Springboks rarely bury an opponent, nor do they get buried, under Erasmus or Jacques Nienaber.
This is the deal they make by playing a very limited brand of rugby centred around hardline defence, mauling and set-piece.
They won’t suffer blow out losses as a result, but the flip side also means the opponent is nearly always in the hunt. As we have seen, lower-ranked opponents have triumphed regularly over the World Cup holders.
When the seventh-ranked Wallabies came off three straight floggings at the hands of the All Blacks last year, they were able to snatch a win on the Gold Coast with a last-gasp Quade Cooper penalty.
Neither of those beatable opponents were put to bed early.
This is the major strategic flaw that seems lost on Erasmus when he takes to Twitter to cope with the latest tight loss.
The way these games are decided is largely by your own doing, except you seemingly haven’t figured out the key risk of your overall approach yet.
Ironically, applying the letter of the law to every situation wouldn’t help as it would result in more penalties against the Springboks.
Sure, some more would go their way, but just as many would go against them leaving them in no better place than now. Fundamentally, nothing else changes.
That’s because calls go both ways, and there are just as many instances of penalisable offences by South Africa that go unpunished.
They would lose the ball frequently on attack as the cleaners fly off feet constantly, sealing off the ball with sloppy execution or from desperate side entries from illegal positions.
But Erasmus doesn’t want that. He wants more calls to fall South Africa’s way. He’s not interested in the calls that go against his opponent. We don’t see those.
He needs those calls as the entire Springboks entire house of cards relies on them, and when it doesn’t work they have an easy scapegoat to blame for the loss, despite at times opting by choice, to play one of the worst styles of rugby seen by humankind.
It mustn’t be forgotten that this isn’t how South African teams of old played, who did bury opponents by large score lines with great attacking play, even from deep inside their own half. Bryan Habana didn’t score 67 Test tries for no reason.
This era hasn’t built a world-class attack. They haven’t taken the game to new heights. Their backline stars are too often caged up and left to starve without enough quality ball to truly shine. They haven’t adapted and have been reluctant to turnover the team with new players since 2019.
Would he win more than 60 per cent of Tests? Would he win more than three from 11 against the other top five Test-playing nations in this World Cup cycle?
At some point you have to wake up and smell the roses, as over the long run you can’t escape the averages. A rough call might cost you a Test, but it won’t cost you six or seven.
In a zero-sum game of wins and losses, it’s a yardstick clear as daylight to tell you where you are.
And this is what it is saying: this is as far as this style of playing the game gets you. That it doesn’t get you more wins is nobody’s fault but your own.
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