“It’s up to us to adapt to what is being blown on the field at the breakdown,” Springboks forwards coach Johan van Graan admitted in Pretoria on Tuesday as the South Africans prepare for their quadrangular series finale against Samoa at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Springboks are coming off a thoroughly unconvincing 30-17 victory over Scotland, in which they scored 10 points in the last five minutes and coach Heyneke Meyer conceded after the Test in Nelspruit that the breakdown was the biggest area of concern for him.
The Springboks failed to get quick ball, partly because Scotland were all over the breakdown, doing their best to disrupt possession by whatever means, fair or foul. The Springboks knew Scotland were going to attack the breakdown, but they did little to stop them, naively relying on the referee to sort out the mess. As Van Graan agreed on Tuesday, quick ball is not some divine right in the game of rugby, you have to work for it and the opposition are obviously going to try and stop you from obtaining it.
“We expected beforehand that every breakdown would be a massive contest, but my feeling is that we also wanted to focus on our discipline in the first 20 minutes and we expected the tacklers to have to roll away quickly, so we didn’t compete as much.
“But there are no excuses, you have to adapt and sort it out on the field; it’s about fixing our own problems,” Van Graan said.
The first problem the Springbok coaching staff has identified is that they need to be more aggressive when carrying the ball.
“My opinion is that it always starts with the ball-carriers. If they don’t get momentum then it’s very difficult for the cleaners to get in. And if those first and second arrivers don’t do their job, then the breakdown is lost,” Van Graan explained.
The expected return of Willem Alberts should provide a boost to that area of the game at Loftus Versfeld, with the bone-crunching loose forward back in training after a side strain.
“Willem was brilliant for the Springboks in 2012. Siya Kolisi and Pierre Spies both had nearly a dozen ball-carries for us against Scotland, but Willem is world-class. He’s the guy you want on the advantage line and that’s where the big battle will be on Saturday,” Van Graan said.
The Springboks fully expect Samoa to follow Scotland’s lead and attack the breakdown, with another inexperienced referee in charge on Saturday in Irishman John Lacey.
“Samoa have a simple plan, but they execute it well. They have big ball-carrying forwards who are good in broken play and at the breakdown. They’re going to put a lot of pressure on the wide rucks, so it won’t be a lot different to Scotland, it’s going to be a battle for the ball,” Van Graan said.
While Alberts’ return would add 20 caps’ worth of experience to the loose trio, there could be a considerable loss of experience at centre with captain Jean de Villiers rated only a 50/50 chance of playing after popping a rib against Scotland. If De Villiers can’t play then JJ Engelbrecht with just three caps, and Jan Serfontein, with only two brief appearances off the bench, will likely combine in midfield.
However, wing Bryan Habana does not believe that this would also create a leadership vacuum.
“Since 2012, the side has had a very young nucleus, with just myself, Jean, Ruan Pienaar, Pierre Spies and Frans Steyn having played more than 50 Tests. So it will be very disappointing if Jean can’t make it, he’s been an unbelievable captain and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. But as a senior player, my job is to make that important step up, that’s what we’re there for, our leadership responsibilities increase and we need to bring that leadership to the fore,” Habana said.
“But it’s also very exciting the way guys like Acker Strauss, Bismarck du Plessis and Pierre Spies, who has led the Blue Bulls very well for the past five months, have stepped forward as leaders. We showed that we still have that calmness and belief we can win in the team, even though we were 6-17 down against Scotland, and that’s a great thing,” Habana added.
While facing the combative Samoans in a final at Loftus Versfeld should ensure the Springboks bring the right attitude into the game, Van Graan said there would also need to be a greater focus on their tactical approach, against opponents who thrive on unstructured, loose rugby.
“In the first 30 minutes against Scotland we maybe played too much rugby. Samoa these days are tactically very good and it might become a tactical battle at Loftus, a typical final. It will be about the territory battle, we need to make sure we dominate that because the referees tend to favour the side with territory. And then we need to hang on to the ball,” Van Graan said.
Against unpredictable opposition and possibly unfathomable refereeing, it is probably wise for the Springboks to rely on their tried and tested approach, but even then it will not be easy to get on top of the Samoans.
“Every game has its own personality and every week we get something different from the referee. And there are a few big challenges in the Samoan pack too – Census Johnston is a world-class prop, Jack Lam is well known for his work in the Hurricanes loose trio and their lock, Kane Thompson, has also played SuperRugby.
“Their backs have good running lines, they’ve already had some big scrums in this series and they can stop our maul,” Van Graan warned.