The result in Sydney was more important than the one in Pretoria in the context of the Springboks’ Rugby Championship title prospects, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The All Blacks haven’t been beaten, but they have been stalled. The Wallabies held the world's No 1-ranked side to a 12-12 draw this past Saturday. The upshot is that neither the Wallabies nor the All Blacks have claimed four log points in the first round of the tournament.
The Boks top the Rugby Championship log, albeit not by the margin they would have expected. The atrocious weather that hit Pretoria this past Saturday made handling difficult to impossible.
The Boks scored a try in the second minute, but were always going to struggle to add three more in what Jean de Villiers described afterwards as the worst conditions he’d ever experienced. And yet, because of the tryless draw in Sydney, the Boks still find themselves two log points clear of both the Wallabies and the All Blacks. This should be viewed as a big positive in the context of the title race.
Publicly, Heyneke Meyer has said that the equation is simple. South Africa need six wins if they are going to claim the Rugby Championship title.
But then Meyer has also said that the Boks need to bank every possible point. The Boks had always planned to chase the four-try bonus point in the opening clash against Argentina, given that the game was to be staged in a region typically conducive to running rugby.
Privately, the Boks hoped that the All Blacks would stumble in Sydney. This would allow the Boks to take a commanding lead over their nemesis at the top of the log.
The Wallabies have obliged by holding the All Blacks to a draw. This result has eased the pressure on the Boks. They can now focus on winning their three tour matches rather than pushing for bonus points.
This ambition may seem conservative to some, but consider the travel challenges faced by the Boks over the next four weeks. Next Saturday, they will play Argentina in Salta. Two weeks later, they will take on Australia in Perth. A week after that, they will tackle New Zealand in Wellington.
The biggest game of their tour is also their last. They will be battling fatigue after journeying across 20 time zones in the space of a month.
A win in Wellington is not impossible, and the All Blacks’ performance in Sydney confirmed that they are anything but invincible. That said, for the Boks to win in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, they would have to defy history.
Nick Mallett’s Boks won both of their away games during the 1998 Tri-Nations. Since then, no South African side has won all of their tour games during a Sanzar tournament. Since the inception of the Rugby Championship, which has for three years seen the Boks playing all three of their tour matches in succession, South Africa’s away record reads: won two, drawn one, lost three.
Meyer’s side has grown over the past 18 months, and will push the All Blacks hard in Wellington. But if they do fall short, it will not be a disaster as far as their title aspirations are concerned.
The Boks will feel confident that they can beat Australia and New Zealand in their last two games of the campaign. Both of these matches will be played in South Africa, and providing the Boks aren’t chasing a bonus-point win in the probable finale against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, a straight win in that game could be enough to end the trophy drought.
The Boks went into the recent clash against Argentina with an attacking mindset. The weather compromised their bonus-point goal, but they have been handed some luck with the result in Sydney. They can now push on with their plans to win at least two of their three games on tour.
A bonus-point win in Salta would certainly help their title cause, although it should not be expected. The past two games in Argentina have been tough grinds, with the Boks drawing in 2012 and winning narrowly in 2013. The Boks should win this coming weekend, but they will once again need to fight tooth and nail for the result.
The Boks will employ a more tactical approach in the next three games. There will be a change at flyhalf, with Morné Steyn providing more stability with his prodigious line and goal-kicking.
The brilliant but raw Handré Pollard will be better for the experience of playing, and battling, at Loftus this past Saturday, but Steyn is the man suited for the task in the more tactical contests. The accomplished veteran will be a key man for the Boks in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images