The All Blacks’ respect for the Springboks’ traditional strengths and the boot of Morné Steyn highlights the need for a pragmatic approach in the modern game, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.
‘One step forward, ten steps back!’ tweeted a South African rugby fan in the wake of the Boks’ 18-10 win against the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld. The sentiment was echoed by many others following a Bok performance that witnessed 18 points via Steyn’s boot and not a single try.
Nobody can argue with the fact that Steyn did exactly what he was selected to do. The Bok flyhalf converted four of his five attempts from the kicking tee, and slotted two drop goals. He steered South Africa to a victory that brought an end to a three-game losing streak.
There was – and still is given Handré Pollard’s injury-enforced absence – a desperate need for a man of Steyn’s particular skills. Elton Jantjies has failed to kick on as a game manager and goal-kicker. Pat Lambie has proven himself in the latter discipline, but there have always been questions around his line-kicking game.
The All Blacks certainly know what Steyn can do. Nobody in New Zealand is ever going to compare Steyn to Dan Carter or Beauden Barrett. And yet, none of the coaches and players have forgotten about what Steyn did to the All Blacks in the three Tests played in 2009, and in the game in Port Elizabeth in 2011.
The New Zealand press is equally wary of Steyn’s strengths. Earlier this week, one website highlighted the threat of Steyn’s tactical kicking as well as his ability to sink crucial drop goals. While some South Africans are wrestling with unimportant descriptions regarding Steyn’s playing style, the New Zealand rugby community is acknowledging the player as a real threat.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster summed things up neatly when addressing the press in Durban on Tuesday. Foster, who has been a part of this all-conquering All Blacks set-up since 2012, appeared somewhat disappointed with the assertion that the Boks are moving back to a ‘boring’ style of rugby.
Foster set the record straight. The Boks have a win-at-all-costs mentality, and so do the All Blacks. He then went on to highlight the threat of Steyn, who for all the perceptions on this side of the Indian Ocean is still greatly respected in New Zealand.
On Thursday morning, it was confirmed that the All Blacks had made a change to their back three, with Waisake Naholo coming in for Julian Savea on the wing. With wet weather expected at Kings Park this Saturday, and with Steyn expected to kick on the visiting wings and fullback, New Zealand have opted for a player who can rise to the occasion, literally and figuratively.
The All Blacks will be feeling a little nervous now that Aaron Smith has been sent home to face a hearing for misconduct. Over the past five years, Smith has developed into one of the strongest tactical players on the planet, and has proven key to the All Blacks' kicking game.
In 2009, Steyn scored all 31 of his side’s points as the Boks completed a resounding win against the All Blacks. Back then, the Boks led the way in terms of defence and tactical kicking, and much of their success stemmed from these strengths.
Indeed, when the 2009 season came to a close, the brains trust at the New Zealand Rugby Union made significant changes to their structures. While there was still an emphasis on handling skills, there was a drive to improve the lineout, kicking game, defence, and conditioning across the franchises. The New Zealanders realised that any side with title aspirations needed to be proficient in these areas of the game.
You know the rest. In the following seven seasons, New Zealand claimed four Super Rugby trophies and the All Blacks won five Rugby Championship titles. The All Blacks won the 2015 World Cup with an approach that was more pragmatic than most gave them credit for.
The All Blacks’ attacking success can be partially attributed to their ability to force turnovers through their aggressive defence. Their accurate line-kicking game has allowed them to win the territorial battle more often than not. Their proficiency under the high ball has allowed them to win the aerial contest and then counter-attack against a fractured opposition defence.
This is the approach that deserves admiration and applause. Players who have the skills to execute in this manner should be valued and celebrated.
This is the game plan and mindset that’s needed to win a Test match. Ask the All Blacks, who have won 57 of their last 62 games, and their last 16 on the trot. They’ve played beautiful rugby at times, but that’s been on the back of a pragmatic approach.
Steyn can add value for the Boks in this fashion. Down the line, Pollard and Johan Goosen, who have the potential to be as effective with the tactical boot as they are threatening with ball in hand, may ascend to this level of competence. And when that happens, the Boks will improve their win record and climb the rankings.
Coach Allister Coetzee said on the day he was appointed that the Boks would look to play a more balanced game in 2016. Coetzee's selections in the first seven Tests of the season, however, compromised the team's drive to dominate territory. Coetzee was guilty of picking players who lacked the skills and experience needed to win the kicking game.
Contrary to popular belief, in this country at least, the selection of Steyn or another player with similar kicking skills is a step in the right direction. The Boks cannot hope to challenge the All Blacks on Saturday, and in the coming years, if they don’t place an emphasis on pressuring and fracturing the opposition through a pin-point kicking game.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images