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RUGBYPASS+ Springboks must bounce back in toughest of circumstances

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Springboks must bounce back in toughest of circumstances By Patrick McKendry

Now is not the time for the world champion Springboks to have an existential crisis about how they play a game they dominated two years ago, but here we are. 

A week after they were outscored four tries to one by the Wallabies in a test in which their defence failed as badly as their now notoriously misfiring attack, they’re set to face an All Blacks team who have never had better clarity about their methods under head coach Ian Foster.

Saturday’s assignment in Townsville – the highly-anticipated occasion of the 100th test between the All Blacks and Boks – presents as something approaching a perfect storm for South Africa, who attempted to play with more width and ambition in their second match against the Wallabies in Brisbane after the two-point nailbiter of the week before, only to crash to a heavier defeat. 

Skipper Siya Kolisi and coach Jacques Nienaber were forced to apologise to their nation in their press conference afterwards. “Unacceptable”, was the gist of it, especially when they considered their defensive frailties, but neither came up with any ideas about how to fix things, although Kolisi did say he believed the Boks had the right game plan, just that they weren’t following it accurately enough. Kolisi is an inspirational and likeable character but few of his team’s supporters are likely to have been encouraged by what they heard.

Jacques Nienaber and Siya Kolisi appeared shell-shocked after the Springboks’ back-to-back losses to the Wallabies. (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a cliché or perhaps more accurately a truism, but success in test rugby is built on a bedrock of defence. The All Blacks have begun their last two matches with thumping statements of intent by, first Nepo Laulala, and then Joe Moody, the two props not content to allow Wallabies front-rower Taniela Tupou to steal all the limelight over the past two weekends.

The Boks have hardly fired a shot in this area – a sign, perhaps, that not all is well within a unit who didn’t play a test last year but who won a series against the British and Irish Lions and then scored back-to-back victories over the Pumas before leaving for Australia. 

The Springboks had by far the worst defence of the four sides who played at Suncorp Stadium at the weekend – a tackle success rate of 72 per cent – and what makes that figure even worse is that they didn’t have to make many tackles during Australia’s 30-17 win. In fact, the Wallabies required them to make only 69 but the Boks could manage only 50.

Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermuelen, Lood de Jager, Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx – the Boks’ pack is full of world-class operators but none of them are in form, with lock Etzebeth, in particular, way off where he usually is.

By contrast, the Wallabies made 95 of their 101 tackles for an excellent success rate of 94 per cent. 

The All Blacks made 125 of their 144 tackles during their 36-13 win over Argentina, with the Pumas making 165 of 189 – both managing a success rate of 87 per cent.

And, again the Springboks had trouble with their set-piece against a nation not known for its scrummaging prowess, in particular. A week earlier on the Gold Coast, the Wallabies were clever in punishing the Boks’ scrum both on the stroke of halftime and fulltime, the dominance in the latter incident helping them win the penalty which Quade Cooper nervelessly kicked for the win.

Similar issues against the All Blacks will be problematic because Foster’s men enjoyed an immaculate set-piece against the Pumas and as far as the scrum was concerned, they enjoyed a clear dominance despite a vastly changed pack. They will count this as another weapon against a rival that appeared demoralised last weekend. 

Eben Etzebeth has looked markedly off the pace in the Springboks’ past two matches and will have to find form against Brodie Retallick this weekend. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermuelen, Lood de Jager, Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx – the Boks’ pack is full of world-class operators but none of them are in form, with lock Etzebeth, in particular, way off where he usually is.

The old joke about first-five Naas Botha introducing himself to his outside backs on the way home from the 1981 tour of New Zealand doesn’t apply to this Boks side as much as the entire backline making genuine acquaintances with their pack because the disconnection is stark and contrasts hugely to what the All Blacks are achieving via their offloading game. 

Scott Barrett’s offload for Tupou Vaa’i’s late try was a neat example of this. All of the All Blacks are comfortable passing, offloading, and running support lines, but the Boks’ pack appear to have regressed to the more defined roles of the 1980s or even earlier.

No 10 Handre Pollard attempted to get his quality midfielders Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am into the game via early wide-to-wide tactics against the Wallabies – and overall they passed and ran more than their opponents – but their inability to breach meant much of it came to nothing. The Boks enjoyed advantages in terms of territory and possession against Australia but beat only six defenders compared with the Wallabies’ 19.

The All Blacks’ stated aim of regaining their world number one mantle has been achieved probably earlier than expected, but now they’ll want to reinforce the point with two compelling performances in their two final Rugby Championship tests.

Now they’re about to meet an old foe in the All Blacks who will feel it’s payback time after the disappointment of the 2019 World Cup. Yes, the last time these two sides played was the pool game in Yokohama two years ago, won 23-13 by the All Blacks, but the Boks had an easier passage through the knockout stages as a result and the sight of Kolisi holding the William Webb Ellis trophy aloft after New Zealand’s 2011 and 2015 successes will not have been forgotten.

The All Blacks’ stated aim of regaining their world number one mantle has been achieved probably earlier than expected, but now they’ll want to reinforce the point with two compelling performances in their two final Rugby Championship tests.

The Boks are also about to meet a side who have won all eight of their tests this year and have shown since coming to Australia for the Rugby Championship that they have the skills, fitness and ambition to play what is a fairly simple game plan very effectively – one that’s based on direct ball-carrying and relentless pace and intensity. In addition, such is the depth and competitiveness within the squad that Foster will have some genuine selection difficulties this week. He’ll be well aware of his strongest line-up, but Ethan Blackadder’s performance against the Pumas may have raised an extra question.

Straight after his team’s victory over the Pumas at Suncorp Stadium, Foster noted that the Boks had tried to play “more rugby” this time around. It came to nought, with the Wallabies picking up a bonus-point victory. The problem for Boks coach Jacques Nienaber is how he sets his team up to play this Saturday in Townsville because they will have to play with ambition in order to stretch an All Blacks team who have settled well on to Scott McLeod’s new defensive structures but should they get it wrong then they run the risk of conceding five-pointers due to their rival’s lethal counter-attack.

The Springboks gave the ball more width against the Wallabies in the second test, but looked like they’d forgotten how to make the most of the space. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

“We’ve had half an eye on South Africa – they’re trying to build something and grow and layer things in,” All Blacks forwards coach Greg Feek said this week. “These guys have won the World Cup and parts of their game have been hugely dominant…”

Foster’s task this week will be to prepare and select a team high on excitement and possibly energy after probably exceeding internal expectations in Brisbane. He had little choice but to roll the dice on 11 changes from the week before, but the All Blacks controlled the game from the first minute and showed a connection and sharpness that Foster would have cautiously hoped for but no more. That the Pumas enjoyed dominance in the fourth quarter was probably more a tribute to their determination and mental toughness than anything.

“We love playing test matches but we really love playing South Africa, probably because of the amount of respect we have for them and over history it’s been an outstanding rivalry,” Foster said.

For Nienaber, the job is far more difficult. He must attempt to lift a side which appears on the slide as they face their ultimate test. “It’s going to be a massive challenge,” he said.

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