The grain of truth buried in rumoured Springboks plot
Tin-foil hats? Check. An evidence board with criss-crossing red strings? Check? A Joe Rogan podcast at the ready? Buckle up Springboks fans. Here comes a wild conspiracy theory.
Oh, you haven’t heard? Turns out Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus instructed their players to lose their titanic clash with Ireland last week. Don’t scoff. There’s some logic floating around the filthy pond if you’re willing to stick your hands in and fish it out.
As a consequence of their defeat, their likely opponents in the next round will be France. A difficult proposition given the French are the tournament’s hosts and will be buoyed by a partisan Parisian crowd. But with Antoine Dupont sidelined, or at least encumbered behind an operatic mask, the pre-tournament favourites don’t have the same intimidating aura they possessed before the start of the competition.
Granted, it’s a mind-bending take. Why would any team want to play France now? Besides, how does any team lose a rugby game by five points against the world’s top-ranked side on purpose? Other sports are more easily fixed. But rugby? There’s no way. The sheer threat to a player’s safety means that any half-arsed tackle or ball carry could end in serious bodily harm.
No, it’s just not feasible. There’s no way Nienaber and Erasmus sent their charges out the Stade de France tunnel and instructed them to throw in the towel.
However, there is a strong case to be made that those players were at least hamstrung to some degree. Not to the extent that they weren’t allowed to fire any shots. Or to the extent that their defeat takes anything away from Ireland’s brilliance – at the breakdown, off the kicking tee, through the midfield with a rampaging Bundee Aki – but now that it’s been mentioned, it’s hard not to at least consider the possibility that the Boks’ coaches have kept a few aces up their sleeve for when the stakes are truly raised.
During the game in the French capital, a thunderous slugfest that would have been a worthy showpiece final event, Faf de Klerk twice attempted to kick a penalty from over 50m. The first, around the 46th minute mark, hit the post. The second, about 20 minutes later, missed altogether.
At the time it seemed like an odd choice. Before the match de Klerk had only slotted 10 of his 16 attempts from the tee since the start of 2022. In that time Manie Libbok, who had missed a conversion and a penalty himself by the time de Klerk lined up his second shot, had a similarly poor record.
For all their strengths elsewhere, the Springboks’ have carried a glaring weakness like some sort of albatross around their necks. Why then would Erasmus flash his colourful lights from the coach’s gantry and urge his players to attempt a difficult kick instead of nudging the penalty into the corner for a line-out close to Ireland’s try-line? Especially when the rolling maul has been a traditional strength of South African rugby since time immemorial. Perhaps there’s more to this than meets the eye?
“Why, with the 7-1 bench split, did we not go to the corner like the Irish went to the corner?” John Dobson, head coach of the Stormers franchise, asked the Off The Ball podcast this week. “Why didn’t we go into the corner with Manie kicking like he is with the 7-1 and take Irish legs in a maul? And rather we went for the distance penalties and twice with Faf [de Klerk], I mean, that is something I would like to know the answer to.”
Dobson was not the only respected rugby brain posing the question. On X (formerly Twitter) the account by the name of Oom Rugby, with almost 30,000 followers, predicted before the match that the “Boks will hold a few things back”. And in the days following the reverse – the team’s third on the bounce to Ireland and their fifth in seven matches – this argument has gathered pace.
And it makes sense, right? There’s a reason Erasmus worked on a particular move, aptly named, ‘the move,’ in secret before the 2019 World Cup final. Back then he orchestrated a cluster of forwards in the centre of the pitch to swamp England’s defence and force a penalty. A similarly clandestine plan was hatched for a monstrous maul against Japan in the quarterfinals that saw them rumble 50 metres up field and bulldoze over for a try.
Mauls have always been complex and dangerous things. Changes to the laws have helped defending teams stand firm against the tide which has forced attacking pods to find innovative ways of working the space and momentum. It stands to reason that the Springboks are devising some cunning plan and that they didn’t want to empty the chamber just yet.
Still not convinced? That’s alright. Elite sport is a binary beast. Victory cements a coach’s genius. Defeat consigns them to ignominy. These theories will only hold water if the Springboks triumph at the end of it all.
There is at least one positive that can be taken from last week’s defeat and that is the (hopeful) abandonment of the 7-1 split. It always looked like a gimmick. It worked against a New Zealand pack that copped an early red card and was largely filled with youngsters, but against an experienced Irish crop that can no longer be fucked up physically, to steal a famous line from Erasmus, it simply failed to achieve its aims.
A 7-1 split forces wholesale changes when they simply aren’t required. It was telling that the Boks seemed to lose direction once Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth made way for substitutes. Without Duane Vermeulen in the match-day 23, the side lacked leadership on the field.
Apart from telegraphing the plan of attack, the 7-1 bench paints South Africa in a corner and forces them to play only one style of rugby. It excludes playmaking backs from having impact off the bench and places even more pressure on a struggling goal-kicker as there is no viable alternative among the replacements.
Hopefully that is the last we see of it. And if it meant losing to Ireland, whether that was the aim or not, the result can be presented as a positive in the long run.
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