The two sides to the Springboks, the good and the ugly
The Springboks have multiple styles of play for differing opponents, but the contrasting gameplans post-World Cup have been more like a split personality disorder.
The ‘good’ side is great to watch and typical of what you would expect from them. The ‘bad’ side is ugly and disastrous for the global game.
The first test against the All Blacks in Townsville last year was a new low for South African rugby, in terms of how the game is approached.
Defensively they were strong, manhandling David Havili in the midfield, ripping apart the All Black maul, and monstering their ruck.
But it was on the other side of the ball that was concerning. Never before in history has a South African team played like it, yet we were told at the time it was their DNA.
There was next to zero desire to do anything with the ball with an unhealthy obsession of kicking to the sky. Even on the edge of the All Blacks’ 22, the scrumhalves were asked to launch box kicks.
George Bridge had a catastrophic night under the high ball, conceding an early try from a dropped ball, but Jordie Barrett was foolproof, defusing nearly everything. The Springboks recovered just two of the 16 kicks sent his way.
The wasteful nature of the kicking was not working, yet with less than two minutes to go and needing just one score, Herschel Jantjies sent another box kick to the sky while inside New Zealand’s half.
There is a difference between a balanced kicking game required at test level and the Boks’ incessant level which reared its ugly head again that night, kicking close to 40 times with 38 in total.
Then there were the constant stoppages and slow restarts to the set-piece.
The forwards deliberately slowed down play as if they hadn’t learnt in pre-school how to tie their shoelaces properly. Forget water boys, Eben Etzebeth needed a personal ‘tape runner’ to strap his boots when he wanted a break and stall for his side.
This subservient desire to slow the game down and not play with the ball was disgraceful for a team that was making their World Cup encore as winners.
The champions of the game should be the benchmark others are chasing, taking the game to greater heights. This was anything but.
You don’t want to be critical of the game as it needs flourishing rivalries, champions and stars to celebrate, but it would be unjust to all the other Springboks teams in modern history and South African rugby itself to pretend this is how the game should be played.
Schoolboy rugby sides in South Africa do not play that way. The elite schools are well coached and want to play with the ball, their top sides in the URC can be brilliant attacking teams and bring a natural South African-style to the way they do it.
Now test rugby is not schoolboy rugby, but it is still rugby. William Webb Ellis did not pick up the football just to then box kick the leather off it.
We kept hearing the justification for the kick-heavy game was that it was ‘tactical’ and should be tolerated as it was ‘winning rugby’. Yet the numbers say otherwise, with a win-rate barely over 60 per cent against tier one opposition – which is lower than the Springboks’ historical average.
Against Australia and New Zealand since 2018, South Africa is an underwhelming 36 per cent with four wins from 11 clashes. The two wins over the All Blacks have been when they play their best brand of rugby.
Essentially they backed down from the challenge in Townsville, and were justly rewarded with a loss for it, their third in a row after two losses to the Wallabies.
The irony is they should have won, because they All Blacks played rather poorly and the Springboks had them beat in most other areas, but their own negative style let Foster’s side off the hook.
The ‘good’ side of the Springboks was on show in the second encounter on the Gold Coast, with a balanced kicking game (27 kicks) and an increase of nearly 50 percent in the number of passes as they moved the ball more.
They wanted to play and take it to the All Blacks physically. As far as spectacles go, it was up there as one of the best games of the year.
They still played to their strengths, looking for the maul when needed but when they made it into the red zone they ran their patterns when required and threw some punches with ball-in-hand to offer up a true contest which was missing in the first test.
Their positive intent was rewarded in the end with an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and they successfully did so.
Now they have their best chance in over a decade to even the lopsided ledger against the All Blacks and repeat the deeds of the 2009 side who beat them three times in a row.
Foster’s side have plenty of issues and are bringing poor form to South Africa with many players who are inexperienced.
Over the last 10 years, South Africa have won just three of 18 tests against the All Blacks, which is far below a reasonable output for this rivalry based on history.
Scotland have a better win rate against England over the same time period, with three wins from 11 tests.
Springboks Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus says they always have respected New Zealand as opponents.
Well, when you’ve won just 17 per cent of your games in 10 years, you don’t really have a choice but to respect them. Only when you are on the other side of the ledger will your ability to respect your opponent be truly tested.
And here is South Africa’s chance to get to that other side. There are no more underdog tags for the Springboks to grasp onto. They are expected to win these two tests by former players and pundits alike on both sides given the poor from of the visiting side.
The Springboks should win and win well by roughly 10 or so points, plain and simple. By even more if they play extraordinary well.
Don’t be win-shy now. Show us the good side, for rugby’s sake.
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