The Springboks’ struggles in the wider channels and under the high ball are cause for concern ahead of a showdown against an All Blacks side that specialises in wide attacks and high-ball receipts, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Bok coach Allister Coetzee has declared himself satisfied with the performance in Perth. At the same time, he has warned his charges that a greater challenge awaits in Albany next Saturday, and that the Boks will need to improve in certain departments if they are going to compete against the All Blacks.
Such honesty is essential for growth. Indeed, while the Boks have improved a great deal in 2017, they are still not at the point where they can be spoken about as strong contenders for the Rugby Championship title, the No 1 world ranking, or the Webb Ellis Cup.
The result in Perth this past Saturday signified progress in the context of the past 12 months. Coetzee’s Boks became the second South African side to draw in Australia during the professional era. Overall, they became the sixth Bok side not to lose in Australia during the same period. That too could be viewed as a sign of progress.
The performance, however, prompted more questions than answers about the state of this Bok side. While it’s clear that they are on the right tactical track, the execution of the game plan has left a lot to be desired.
There’s more than one reason to feel encouraged ahead of the showdown with the All Blacks. The Bok scrum has been dominant across the Tests against France, Argentina and most recently the Wallabies. While the Boks still lack a quality jumper in their back row, their lineout has begun to contest to greater effect. Jaco Kriel’s excellent decision-making at the breakdown this past Saturday prevented the Wallabies from getting quick ball at key moments of the game.
Of course, there are even more reasons to be nervous ahead of a clash against the top-ranked side on the planet. If we’re being honest, the Boks have mixed the sublime with the mediocre over the past six matches.
There have been times when their defence has fired and others when it has failed. There have been moments when their kicking execution has been spot-on and others when it has landed them in a spot of bother.
The Wallabies made easy metres in the wider channels in Perth. They succeeded in putting the Boks under pressure at the kick-offs. They caused the Bok back three problems when they launched the high kick and then competed in the air.
The All Blacks are likely to employ similar tactics. They have the set piece to meet the challenge of the Boks. They have the loose forwards to win the collisions and control the breakdowns.
Most significantly, they have decision-makers and finishers out wide who are capable of translating forward dominance into metres, tries and points.
We saw how the New Zealand sides bullied their South African counterparts in the recent Super Rugby tournament. We saw how the Kiwis’ larger outside backs bumped off the likes of Raymond Rhule and won the contest for the high ball time and again.
Rhule, Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee have failed to convince over the past six Tests. Rhule has missed tackles (more than any other player in the tournament) and given away easy metres with frightening regularity. Skosan and Coetzee have been anything but secure under the high ball.
That is a combination the All Blacks will surely target in Albany. The hosts will also fancy their chances against the Bok midfield after seeing how easily the line was breached by the Wallabies in Perth.
A look at the current squad suggests that Coetzee doesn’t have many back-three options at present. Then again, one has to ask why certain local players have been overlooked and why Coetzee has not invested in overseas-based players with the size, skills and experience to combat these challenges.
Lukhanyo Am should have been included in the Rugby Championship squad. S’bu Nkosi is worth investing in sooner, rather than later. Curwin Bosch is worth considering at fullback on the basis of his tactical kicking excellence. Of those playing overseas, Ruan Combrinck and JP Pietersen have shown that they have what it takes to be a success at this level.
Perhaps the Bok coach wants to give the incumbents one final opportunity to prove their worth. The game in Albany will test the likes of Rhule, Skosan and Coetzee like never before. The Bok coach may be hoping that these players rise to the challenge and show why they belong at this level.
They've battled against the likes of France, Argentina and Australia, though. Come the clash against the All Blacks, a failure to make a tackle out wide or to field a well-directed high ball may end up costing the Boks the result.
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