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Ken Borland

So near and yet so far for Boks 0

Posted on December 01, 2022 by Ken

So near and yet so far is probably an apt summation of the Springboks’ Rugby Championship campaign, and there is a lingering feeling that Jacques Nienaber’s team are still not playing to their true potential and are still not ruthless enough when it comes to translating dominance to points on the scoreboard.

And their next opponents, on November 5 and 12 respectively, are Ireland in Dublin and France in Marseille. Those are the top two sides in the world rankings and then we will have a better idea of whether South Africa are genuine World Cup contenders or just also-rans in a southern hemisphere competition that is no longer the gold standard of international rugby.

Having hammered the All Blacks in Nelspruit on the opening weekend, the Springboks really only have themselves to blame for not winning the Rugby Championship for just the fifth time.

Their first misjudgement lies squarely on Nienaber (and maybe director of rugby Rassie Erasmus) for not choosing the best XV to play New Zealand the following weekend at Ellis Park. The All Blacks were in disarray and ripe for the taking after their 26-10 defeat at Mbombela Stadium. When your greatest rivals are on their knees, you don’t experiment and give them a helping hand, you ruthlessly turn the knife and ensure they sack their coach mid-competition.

Instead, Ian Foster’s men bounced back with an impressive win, the ship was steadied and, despite an historic first loss at home to Argentina, they were worthy winners of the Rugby Championship.

Having lost to the Pumas 25-18 in Christchurch, New Zealand then thrashed them 53-3 the following weekend in Hamilton, the result that ultimately won them the title, because it left the Springboks needing a bonus point and turning around a big points differential in the final round to claim the silverware.

It is that kind of ruthlessness, the ability to really put opposition away, that the Springboks lack. The last time they scored 40 points in the Rugby Championship, never mind winning by a margin of 39, was back in August 2019 against Argentina.

I get that Test matches cannot always be like a commercial for open, running rugby, but the great sides are able to leverage dominance and make it reflect on the scoreboard. And there have been periods when the Springboks have enjoyed an absolute monopoly on momentum, but just did not have the execution or intent to make it count.

In the last match against Argentina, I would have liked to have seen the Springboks try and play some expansive rugby. They had nothing to lose – even if they lost, they still would have finished second.

But with crash-ball centres at numbers 10 and 12 and the creativity of Lukhanyo Am missed at outside centre, the Springboks still just relied on their usual formula of scoring from set-pieces and rolling mauls.

They were not helped by a referee, Damon Murphy, who was determined to be in the middle of the limelight. If you are going to steal the show, at least make sure you are competent, but Murphy and his officiating team made a series of terrible decisions that robbed South Africa of momentum.

From winning the World Cup in 2019, the Springboks no longer seem to be the leaders of the pack. I don’t see much growth, especially in terms of their attacking play, since those heady days in Japan. The opposition will have had four years to work out how to blunt South Africa’s forward-based, strangling game of stout defence and contestable kicking, and the Boks better have more strings to their bow if they hope to defend their title.

Perhaps Nienaber, an inexperienced head coach maybe in Erasmus’s shadow, has tried too hard to prove he is the man and is too prescriptive in terms of the style of play. While throttling the opposition has worked, one wonders if the Springboks are not strangling their own potential in the process?

Let’s hope they express themselves more in Europe.

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