The Springboks game plan was validated by All Blacks' aerial showing
There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat when it comes to rugby.
So the vitriol directed at the Springboks for a game plan that revolves around kicking has been interesting. Sure, it is not the most exciting rugby ever played, and it has not borne winning fruit in their last three outings.
But last time I looked, a team should always play to its strengths. If that means 10-man rugby or, in the case of the Boks right now, nine-man rugby, then so be it.
South Africa would love to have the services of Cheslin Kolbe… mind you, he was criminally underemployed in the series win over the Lions. Kolbe is, outside of halfback Faf de Klerk, the only Bok back who can threaten opposition defences. So why would you think that an ageing Willie Le Roux or the limited Lukhanyo Am are going to slice up the All Blacks or light up the spectacle of rugby’s greatest rivalry?
The fact is that the Boks might have won a famous shock victory were it not for Jordie Barrett’s goalkicking under pressure. And they would have done so by contesting every All Blacks’ lineout ball, tackling like demons and persisting with a box kicking tactic that yielded a try and caused the flighty All Blacks consternation every time the ball went up.
There was a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth after the Townsville Test, a dreary spectacle, but at least the Boks emerged from the changing rooms with a clear idea of what they were trying to do for the 80 minutes, unlike in the second, dire, Test against the Wallabies. They were clueless and their pack untypically passive in that clash.
So there was actually much to like about how the Boks went about their work against the All Blacks. They forced turnovers and de Klerk’s box kicks were mostly on point. They will not care a fig if it was tedious to the neutral or New Zealand fan.
One could argue that the Boks were cynical, having much the worse of the penalty count, and Sbu Nkosi’s deliberate knockdown of an All Blacks could easily have incurred a penalty try.
But Test rugby is all about pressure and they put the squeeze on the All Blacks, who don’t function as smoothly when their ball is slowed down and they have to defuse bombs for nigh on 80 minutes.
One thinks back to the 2011 Rugby World Cup semifinal when Cory Jane gave one of the great aerial displays by a wing, catching every high ball that rained down. The crazy thing was that the Wallabies, on that night, never changed up their tactics, getting the same result when Will Genia et al hoisted the ball.
But the Boks had no reason to shelve the kicking as the All Blacks kept dropping the ball (looking at you here, I’m afraid, George Bridge) or it went loose when contested. So of course they were going to continue in similar vein.
Boks coach Jacques Nienaber talked about trying to “attack space.” I supposed space exists above the ground too and there’s plenty of it there.
The extraordinary thing is that the All Blacks knew what was coming last weekend and they know what is coming this weekend. But you can have the widest skillset in the world. A well-placed high ball with hungry chasers is still a valid tactic and can cause havoc with the best-laid plans.
It has been so since time immemorial.
This Boks side might be the RWC holder, but it is not a patch on the 2009 side that won the Tri Nations. That team possessed attacking threats such as Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana along with howitzer boots like Frans and Morne Steyn behind a formidable pack. Even then, they were often conservative in their tactics. But they took down the All Blacks in three straight Tests that season.
The Springboks are not trying to win friends and influence rugby people here. They just want to win Tests. So they won’t get sucked into throwing the baby out with the bathwater like England did, disastrously, in the 1991 RWC final.
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