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Willemse's brilliance can't save the Boks from the boring tag

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

The Springboks crushed England into submission with a demoralising 27-13 win at Twickenham but the manner in which they constructed their win was largely the same for the most part.


Relying on the brilliance of flyhalf Damian Willemse to break open the Test won’t be enough to break the ‘boring’ tag for the Boks, as much as some want them to shed that tag.

The Boks played their waiting game of applying defensive pressure whilst offering zero impetus on attack once again. It was effective against England and delivered the desired outcome on the day.

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But their narrow approach to the game cannot be disputed: from their first 20 possessions in the game over the first 30 minutes of game clock, just one reached four phases.

The rest were two phases or less, nine lasted just one phase, as they promptly kicked the ball away, attempted another maul or scrum, or surprisingly, turned it over, even though they weren’t trying to do much.

They managed just 17 total passes from those first 20 possessions, one every 105 seconds, with a total of 16 phases strung together and 11 kicks. It took 11 possessions to get more than two phases out of them after 17 minutes of game clock.

The game lumbered away for this duration, with only England attempting, very poorly mind, to play any ball-in-hand attack. Viewers had to listen to more words from Angus Gardner’s mouth than they saw passes from players in green jerseys.


The Springboks simply do not want the ball and that’s okay. They are a defensive-minded team and play a pressure game based on hammering your opponent physically. They possess back rowers with superhuman strength who can be immovable at the ruck.

To feed this strength, it requires giving your opponent the ball frequently, so that’s what they do. But this approach comes unequivocally with the boring tag, nicely gift-wrapped and placed front and centre.

The first play from a set-piece that offered ball to the backs, a scrum in the 30th minute, was a direct carry up main street by Damian de Allende after a pass from the base by Faf de Klerk.

The seven phase sequence that followed featured seven passes of one-out rugby off De Klerk before a well executed drop goal between the sticks by Willemse to give South Africa a 6-3 lead.


After 31 minutes of action, the Springboks had not played with the ball and England, who were utterly dismal with ball-in-hand, were still in the game after a couple of fluffed penalties by Owen Farrell.

Then came the knockout blow, allowed to unfold as England continued to play their unpolished shape. Marcus Smith, standing so deep he was basically on Whitton Road, shovelled a splitter pass between the pod out to Farrell, who similarly floated another lame duck out the back to Manu Tuilagi for a gain line loss.

Two phases later after the team had unravelled altogether Smith hoisted to the sky in desperation an awful bomb, deep and uncontested, with tired forwards standing in front of him.

Willemse was the chief architect on a magical piece of counter-attack, stepping Freddie Steward cold and breaking away downfield to break the spirits of England.

Kurt-Lee Arendse finished the long-range effort with blistering pace down the right side and punished Smith directly for his aimless kick.

At 11-3 the game was effectively over despite being just 33 minutes old. South Africa had to produce just one play of brilliance to sink Eddie Jones’ ship.

We had seen what England had to offer. They lacked precision, timing, polished organisation, basically everything you need to play efficient rugby. They were a disorganised mess by the third phase, which offered no trouble for South Africa’s high line rush.


After the Boks had landed the killer blow, trickery on the next exit saw the Springboks break out of their own 22 with another piece of creative play from Willemse finding an offload for Arendse.

England could not handle the Springboks at high tempo, but it took over half an hour to get there and it was brief. That they can turn it on for a few minutes does not make the Springboks a high-flying entertainer’s dream.

The Venus flytrap approach is by its very nature a bore, waiting for the fly to make a mistake. It’s the defensive boxer who finds the sucker-punch after soaking up the blows.

That was the Springboks at Twickenham. Patient, gritty, disciplined in their process but ever-so tedius and draining.

From the moment Arendse swan-dived over they were never in danger against an abject England side, smartly constructing a bigger lead, but aided by luck at times with Etzebeth’s earthworm try playing the ball whilst still in the process of getting up off the ground.

Their last points came in the 57th minute after winning another scrum penalty, and a red card in the 60th gave England a one man advantage for the final quarter for a consolation try.

They made just 66 passes in total, a reversal of the expansive game seen against Italy, that was just a tease. But a win is a win of course.

And with that final victory on Twickenham soil another 8-5 season became etched in Bok history, another one at 61.5 per cent.


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Jon 1 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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