The Springboks don't need a No10, they just need a goal kicker
Ireland head into their clash against the Springboks as clear favourites, but whether that tag holds too much weight to carry with them will soon be answered.
That will suit South Africa just fine who tend to crumble under high expectations and seemingly love to play under pretences of victimhood and feeling slighted in order to rally into action.
The Springboks, with two tests of their own at home against the All Blacks, imploded at Ellis Park with a chance at point blank to put New Zealand out of their misery.
A colossal selection misfire and inferior conditioning at altitude trying to keep up with the fast-paced play of the All Blacks led to the home side’s downfall.
Left to share the inter-series 1-all, it cost the Springboks their first ever full Rugby Championship title as they came up short by a bonus point in the final wash.
The Springboks are what they are, blowing hot and cold and consistently inconsistent, unable to maintain excellence for long stretches.
At their best they can manhandle an opposition side, like the Wallabies in Sydney, at their worst they fail to show up, like against the same Wallabies the week before in Adelaide.
The travel factor has always been a hindrance for the Boks and could be a factor first up in Dublin.
The last time they visited Dublin in 2017 they fell to a 38-3 defeat, which perhaps spelled the end of the Allister Coetzee-era. They bounced back to beat France in Paris the next week, but after the end of the tour he was out.
As disastrous as some of the games under Coetzee were, like 57-0 at Albany, the Springboks’ overall record in his final year in charge (7W-2D-4L) was better than Erasmus in his first year (7W-7L), with a higher win percentage and three less losses.
The difference being the magnitude of some of the individual losses under Coetzee became too lopsided to stomach.
In this new era, the Springboks have not suffered a heavy defeat of 20 points or more since that last trip to Ireland.
A 15 point loss to England in a dead rubber in 2018 and a 13 point loss to Australia in 2021 have been their largest since.
If Ireland are to back up their favouritism with the result, they will have to grind out a win this time.
They have proven to have the complete game to handle what South Africa will throw at them, aided by a raucous home crowd at the Aviva which has become somewhat of a fortress. Ireland have 15 wins and one loss at the Aviva since 2020 under Andy Farrell.
As long as Sexton is in the starting line-up, Ireland are a formidable opponent with the world’s best attacking shapes and structures. Their defence has also been incredibly strong under Farrell, outside of a chaotic twenty minute period at Eden Park in the first test against the All Blacks.
South Africa have not played a side as clinical with the ball as Ireland, but against more physical sides like France it has been tough for the Irish to control the game through possession the way they desire.
The Boks have what it takes to trouble or limit Ireland’s attack much like France, which will put Ireland’s decision-making in scoring range in focus. They were bold against the All Blacks, aggressively turning down multiple shots at goal to have a crack at the line.
Much has been made of the loss of Handre Pollard and the lack of options at 10 for South Africa.
Damian Willemse already adequately covers the role, but fear not, as the bigger picture has been missed here – there is no need for a genuine No 10 in the Springboks system.
And there never has been under Rassie Erasmus or Jacques Nienaber.
The only thing that matters is having a place kicker that can be relied upon, whether he is wearing No 10 or not.
If there is a placekicker who hovers around 80 per cent somewhere in the team, then just about any backline player in the squad could turn out at No 10, as evidenced by the selection of Frans Steyn against Argentina in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Despite comparisons being made between Steyn and Sexton, the world’s current best flyhalf, the similarities start and finish with their playing ages.
Steyn was the established goal kicker they needed, they were able to construct a comfortable 38-21 win in Durban with the 35-year-old at flyhalf. Ireland on the other hand, capitulate in no short order without Sexton on the field, such is his presence needed.
Pollard’s absence was no problem as he was never needed to make plays with ball in hand to begin with. Armed with a pack that dominates up front and wins penalties, the flyhalf is a backseat passenger along for the ride.
In the breakthrough win over the Wallabies in Sydney, Willemse showed flashes as a dynamic flyhalf with all the tools to potentially become one of the world’s best at the position.
Willemse’s biggest roadblock to realising his potential is that the Springboks typically do not want their 10 taking on too much on attack, an area he presents a constant threat. In a different system, he could really deliver something special.
His Achilles heel, from a Springboks perspective, can be his goal kicking which will be put to the test against Ireland. They have not named another experienced goal kicker like Steyn in the 23, opting for a 6-2 split and cover at scrumhalf and fullback. Willemse will have to deliver.
He nailed a long range penalty under pressure to beat Wales in the first test in July, but last year against the Wallabies sprayed a conversion right that would have built a three point buffer. They lost by two points, putting his costly miss under the spotlight.
Despite his gifted ability with the ball in hand, his accuracy off the tee harms his prospects of locking down the starting role, in the absence of having another sharpshooter there to take the kicking duties off him.
A couple of key missed kicks will test the management’s belief in their young No 10 as points will be at a premium in Dublin.
Ireland have not lost a test at home during the Autumn international period since 2016, when the All Blacks came seeking retribution for the Chicago defeat.
On that day, the brutality of Hansen’s side was called into question, but you feel a similar intensity from the Springboks may be required to end a streak of 12 straight test wins in the November period since that 21-9 loss.
If they don’t bring that attitude, it’s hard to see them matching it with the world’s current No 1 ranked side.
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