The Springboks’ varied approach in the final two Rugby Championship Tests speaks to a tactical evolution that does provide cause for encouragement, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There was something brutal, but beautiful about the manner in which the Boks regularly manhandled the All Blacks on Saturday. To be at the ground was to appreciate the sheer physicality that the Boks brought to proceedings.
Afterwards, New Zealand captain Kieran Read admitted that they had been quite literally taken aback by the manner in which the Boks’ big men just kept on coming at them with powerful carries up the middle.
According to Sanzaar’s stats, Steven Kitshoff made 16 carries, Malcolm Marx completed 14, Eben Etzebeth made 13, Lood de Jager backed that up with 12, while Pieter-Steph du Toit completed a whopping 21.
Coupled with that, the Boks often used inside centre Jan Serfontein as a battering ram, with the 24-year-old producing his best performance of the Rugby Championship as he fearlessly charged into contact.
This was blunt-force trauma at its best – and while the All Blacks continually aimed to bring their flashy backs into play – the Boks simply just kept on bashing away.
The Springboks may not have dazzled with sexy ball-in-hand play out wide, but the end result was a mere one-point loss to the mighty All Blacks, and no one was complaining about the fact that substance took preference over style.
What struck me, though, was just how different this approach was to that which the Boks adopted against Australia just the week before in Bloemfontein.
Having also watched that Test from the vantage point of the press box, it was more evident than ever just how much the Boks sought to use the width of the field with ambitious side-to-side play.
To illustrate that point, the statistics demonstrate just how prominent the Boks’ back three were in Bloemfontein – Andries Coetzee made 110m and 13 carries, Dillyn Leyds completed 83m and 14 carries, while Courtnall Skosan made 94m and 13 carries.
That game of width with ball-in-hand ambition was part of a clear plan from the Boks to back their skills and handling, while aiming to tire out the Wallabies on the highveld. The concept of such attacking intent was a good one, but it wasn’t matched by execution, and ultimately the Boks had to settle for a disappointing draw.
Make no mistake, the Springboks are far from the complete product. A prime foundation for attack has often been disrupted as a result of inconsistencies at the set piece, while their tactical and contestable kicking game still leaves a lot to be desired.
At times in the Rugby Championship, the Boks’ attack has also been blunted by the fact that Elton Jantjies has tended to stand too deep rather than take the ball flat and attack the gainline, while the team’s defence has been occasionally too passive.
These are work-ons that need to be addressed when the Boks begin preparations for the upcoming four-Test end-of-year tour, but the last two matches of the Rugby Championship certainly provided indications that the Springboks in their current guise are no longer merely a one-dimensional outfit.
Considering that the Boks effectively altered their approach from one week to another, while enforcing horses-for-courses selections (with Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit bulking up the pack against the All Blacks), it does point to a proactive approach.
While we shouldn’t get too carried away with the Springboks’ competitive – but ultimately winless – effort against the All Blacks on Saturday, credit must be given where it’s due.
Perhaps the Bok coaches do have a point when they insist that the longer this team sticks together, the better they will become in terms of their decision-making, execution and all-round accuracy.
Squad competition is also beginning to be created by the performances of Kitshoff, De Jager, Du Toit and Handré Pollard, while the likes of Thomas du Toit, Warrick Gelant, S’bu Nkoski, Makazole Mapimpi and Curwin Bosch continue to perform on the domestic front.
There’s a long way to go before the Springboks can really be regarded as world-beaters, but at least there are some progressive signs of proactivity that certainly weren’t evident this time last year when the Boks plunged to a heaviest-ever home defeat to the All Blacks in Durban (57-15).