Unlock premium content and more with all-new RugbyPass+ Unlock Premium with RugbyPass+
Close Notice

RUGBYPASS+ A Test of conviction

Powered by
Powered by TheXV
A Test of conviction

All signs point to an All Blacks victory in Townsville this Saturday.

Unlike the Springboks, the All Blacks have served up a series of sparkling attacking performances and have won all eight of their Tests this season.

Unlike the Springboks, the All Blacks are yet to be physically and mentally depleted by a lengthy period in a bio-bubble or indeed any sort of overseas tour. While the current matches in Australia mark the first phase of a 10-game journey that will culminate in Europe and the United States, Ian Foster’s charges, who have played all of their games to date in Australasia, should be relatively fresh at this stage of the season.

The All Blacks recently surpassed the South Africans at the top of the World Rugby rankings. They’re favourites to win the Rugby Championship title this weekend, and it’s fair to say two victories against the world champions over the next fortnight will prove without a shadow of a doubt they are the best team on the planet.

New Zealanders and neutral observers have good reason to expect an All Blacks victory. Yet on the subject of the South African game plan, they doth protest too much.

Former international coaches such as Sir Clive Woodward and Laurie Mains have gone out of their way to denounce the Boks and their style of play. Why should it matter if the All Blacks favour one approach and the Boks another? Perhaps the most interesting question is why Woodward, Mains and Foster himself are using the media to cast the current Bok game plan in an unflattering light. It wasn’t too long ago the All Blacks boss said the Bok game plan puts him to sleep.

If the Boks moved completely away from their traditional strengths, they would lose the ability to compete with the All Blacks.

If the South African way is so flawed, so limited and so ineffective, why would an opposition coach dream of pointing that out? What could an opponent of the Boks possibly have to gain by interrupting the enemy when they are making a mistake?

The mistake, of course, would be in taking these comments at face value. 

If the Boks moved completely away from their traditional strengths, they would lose the ability to compete with the All Blacks. Many teams have attempted to follow or copy the New Zealand template over the years and have been routinely dispatched by an All Blacks side vastly more equipped for an end-to-end contest.

Woodward recently suggested the game will be “dead in five years” if other teams follow South Africa’s example. It was a strange comment to make for a coach who favoured a big pack and a strong tactical fly-half when England won the World Cup in 2003. Since then, the Boks and All Blacks have won two apiece using different styles of play. The bigger games of this era have played out in front of capacity crowds. 

Handré Pollard kicks for goal
Handré Pollard launched a robust defence of South Africa’s blueprint (Getty Images)

Equally surprising was Woodward’s bizarre inference that the South African players cannot possibly enjoy the current game plan. This approach has earned the Boks a Rugby Championship title, a World Cup and a series win against the British and Irish Lions.

Springbok vice-captain Handré Pollard defended the playing style and went as far as to describe it as “beautiful”. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and every player, coach and fan has the right to decide what they consider to be attractive or unattractive. A lot of rugby people might consider the approach that yields the desired result to be a beautiful thing. 

To reiterate, this approach has led to three major titles in the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber era. It laid the platform for a rare win against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in 2018. 

Some have billed the coming match between the All Blacks and the Boks as a fight for the soul of the sport. The All Blacks have been hailed as heroes for the attacking cause, while the Boks have been cast as dastardly villains bent on stifling the flow of the game.

With those successes in mind, it’s little wonder that South Africa’s opponents have gone public with their criticism about the game plan. If they truly believed that the approach had no merit, they might encourage the Boks to pursue it.

In 2016 and 2017 – one of the darkest periods in South African rugby history – heavy defeats were often followed by an opposition coach or captain insisting the Boks “weren’t far away from getting it right”. When Erasmus came to power in 2018, however, he steered the team back towards its traditional strengths and restored a proud identity. 

Some have billed the coming match between the All Blacks and the Boks as a fight for the soul of the sport. The All Blacks have been hailed as heroes for the attacking cause, while the Boks have been cast as dastardly villains bent on stifling the flow of the game and robbing fans of a spectacle.

It’s a simplistic narrative that does the great rivalry, as well as the game itself, no credit. When the Bok game plan is well executed, it can produce some spectacular tries. On the other hand, the All Blacks aren’t celebrated enough for the manner in which they slow the ball down at the breakdown or how they dominate the kick-chase.

Springboks v All Blacks
The Springboks have not met the All Blacks for over two years (Photo ODD ANDERSEN/ via Getty Images)

One would hope the Boks exhibit the strength of their convictions over the next two weeks. One would hope the South African players don’t buy into the aforementioned narrative and start to doubt their game plan in the wake of two losses to the Wallabies. 

It’s important to view the Boks’ most recent performances in context. The South Africans overcame a Covid-19 outbreak within their camp to win the Lions series. They spent more than 10 weeks in a bio-bubble, and a further two in quarantine, before playing their first match against the Wallabies. Any team – even the All Blacks – would struggle to maintain a high standard in such challenging circumstances. 

That’s not to say that they should be completely excused after two lacklustre performances. Over 160 minutes, the Boks were shown four yellow cards and missed as many as 40 tackles. Their discipline and defence hasn’t been good enough on this tour.

The Boks lacked energy in collisions and at breakdowns, and their overall execution was poor. In short, the implementation of the game plan was flawed rather than the game plan itself.

Ten points went a-begging as Pollard and Damian Willemse combined for four missed goal attempts in the first match on the Gold Coast. Nienaber also lamented the team’s handling mistakes in prime attacking positions, as well as some amateurish set-piece gaffes.

The Boks lacked energy in collisions and at breakdowns, and their overall execution was poor. In short, the implementation of the game plan was flawed rather than the game plan itself.

Makazole Mapimpi is tackled
The Springboks were second-best in back-to-back defeats by Australia (Getty Images)

It’s something to bear in mind as calls for a change in tactics intensify ahead of the most demanding matches on the South African schedule. As things stand, they have the blueprint to beat the All Blacks.

Will they have to reduce their error rate and convert the bulk of their scoring chances to have any chance? Absolutely. 

Should they bin the approach that has brought them success and attempt to beat the All Blacks at their own game? Absolutely not.

Two wins are up for grabs, and the victor of this mini-series will earn the right to be recognised as the best team in the game. 

While the All Blacks are favourites to take the crown, the Boks will improve their chances of an upset if they shut out of the noise and keep faith in their formula. 

More stories from Jon Cardinelli

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it with friends or on social media. We rely solely on new subscribers to fund high-quality journalism and appreciate you sharing this so we can continue to grow, produce more quality content and support our writers.

Join RugbyPass+ now to continue reading this article.

Access our new premium content area bringing you the highest quality rugby content from award-winning journalists, opinionated pundits, leading coaches and the biggest stars in the game.

loading
Search