Although it was undoubtedly a valiant effort by the Springboks, they can’t feel hard done by after their exit from the World Cup at the hands of the All Blacks in their semi-final at Twickenham over the weekend.
It is often said that you can’t play rugby without the ball and that is also true of territory: against top defensive patterns like New Zealand have, you’re not going to be causing many problems if you’re playing from your own half all the time.
South Africa only had 33% territory against the All Blacks – in other words two-thirds of the game was played in their own half. We saw magnificent defence from the Springboks, but we didn’t see anything else. As predicted before the game, they could only offer one-off ball-carriers, strong as they were, and no variety to their attacking play.
Much of the territory problems came down to poor exit strategies. When your scrumhalf is chiefly responsible for clearing your lines via a box-kick from the base – which by its very nature is going to be a higher, shorter kick – then you’re not going to be gaining as much ground compared to when your flyhalf, with a bit more space, can fire a long, raking touchfinder off after a couple of phases. It’s become a bugbear of mine, but Handre Pollard has a massive boot, why wasn’t it used more to drive the All Blacks back?!
The Springboks were hoping that their physicality would wear down the All Blacks, but that’s not going to happen when the opposition can match you physically and is better conditioned. In fact, it is the defending champions who did all of the wearing down, because they constantly asked different questions of the defence, as Nick Mallett pointed out.
“The All Blacks tried to attack in a variety of ways – they had Julian Savea coming off his wing, they played off nine, then they tried going to the backs with Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu carrying the ball, then they went to pick-and-goes and they even tried grubbers. They kept on trying different things, which keeps the pressure on the defence. They don’t just have one game plan, they have a whole variety of attacking options and we were beaten by a better team. We were lucky it was a very wet day,” Mallett said on SuperSport after the game.
There is understandably some negativity around South African rugby at the moment, but I believe our glasses aren’t just half-full of talent, they are full to overflowing, as shown by some of the wonderful Currie Cup rugby produced by the Lions, Western Province and Blue Bulls.
Experienced, visionary coaches are a bit thinner on the ground, but appointing Heyneke Meyer as Springbok coach again is not going to take our rugby forward. The high-intensity, ball-in-hand game plan which Meyer flirted with and then ditched is the way forward, but he clearly does not believe in it and/or cannot coach it.
Two of the most promising young coaches in the country, Nollis Marais of the Bulls and John Dobson of Western Province, have both gone on record in the last couple of weeks as saying the Lions’ brand of rugby, which is all about laying a platform up front and then using the ball while playing what is in front of you, is the way forward.
Lady Luck is a fickle mistress in the arena of top-level sport, but she seldom favours the team that isn’t willing to try anything; the team that hardly plays any rugby at all.