The game management of South Africa’s premier scrumhalves and flyhalves must improve in the lead-up to the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The result of the Six Nations Test in Cardiff will echo through to the World Cup in Japan. Wales, who were defensively and tactically superior in the 21-13 victory this past Saturday, have every reason to believe that they can beat England should the two teams meet in the quarter-finals.
Wales could make a further statement when they meet Scotland and Ireland – a side described by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen as the form Test team of 2018 – in the coming weeks. Warren Gatland’s side beat Australia and South Africa last November, and will go into the global tournament as more than dark horses if they emerge from the Six Nations with a Grand Slam title.
Is it worth making any bold predictions at this early stage of the Test season? The first three rounds of the Six Nations, and indeed the first two of the less compelling Super Rugby tournament, have served up some surprises and made fools of most experts.
Most people, including myself, expected Ireland to win the Grand Slam this year. Then Ireland were beaten in Dublin by a more physical and skilled England side.
Most people, and again I include myself, felt that England were Grand Slam champions in waiting after beating Ireland and France. Then Eddie Jones’s team was overcome by a Wales outfit that possessed more power, street-smarts and composure on the day.
Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from the Tests played last November and in the first three rounds of the 2019 Six Nations. There’s not much separating the top four or five teams in the world at present and thus no reason for any side to feel overconfident.
Pressure management has been key to success, as have the tactical adjustments made over the course of the big contests. We saw that when the All Blacks played the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld last year, and more recently when Wales hosted England in Cardiff.
Jones made the point himself when asked about the poor kicking by his halfbacks Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell.
‘Pressure will do that to you,’ the England coach said. ‘When players are put under that kind of pressure they tend to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.’
The Boks will face the All Blacks in the first pool match of the World Cup. They’re likely to face Ireland in the quarter-finals and there’s a strong chance – should they advance – that they will meet England or Wales later in the tournament. How the chief decision-makers respond and adjust when their side is under pressure will be crucial.
The South African sides have combined for some important results in the first two rounds of Super Rugby. The Sharks have secured bonus-point wins against the Sunwolves in Singapore and the Blues in Durban. The Lions beat the Jaguares in round one to end their losing streak in Buenos Aires.
The Bulls looked to have turned a corner when they thrashed the Stormers 40-3 in Pretoria. Embrose Papier and Handré Pollard took some excellent options in that fixture, although it should be noted that the Bulls forwards bossed the Stormers at the lineouts, collisions and breakdowns and thus the backline was rarely under any pressure.
What was witnessed in round two was less encouraging as far as the game management of South Africa’s premier halfbacks was concerned. The Bulls did not enjoy dominance against the Jaguares pack, and their halfbacks were often under pressure.
Overall, the Bulls did not adjust to the wet conditions in Buenos Aires. There was no adjustment late in the game and one had the feeling that the Jaguares were going to emerge victorious.
The game at Newlands was a clanger. The Lions, who made a statement with their smart tactical performance in Buenos Aires in round one, were far from clinical in their scrap with the Stormers in round two. And as his pack relinquished control and the pressure began to mount, Elton Jantjies – another one of Rassie Erasmus’ flyhalf options for the World Cup – had no answer.
The Sharks combination of Louis Schreuder and Rob du Preez has been solid in recent weeks. The real test will come, however, when the Sharks pack is placed under pressure and the side has to change tactics late in the game. The Sharks beat the Blues convincingly, but will have more to prove when they face the better sides from New Zealand.
It will be interesting to see how the respective players respond when the Lions host the Bulls and the Sharks host the Stormers in round three. The Lions and Bulls will be under pressure to bounce back following their recent losses, while the Stormers have to build some momentum before they travel to Australasia.
If a player cannot overcome the pressure in a South African derby, how can he be expected to excel in a big game played in New Zealand? And if he can’t respond to the challenge of playing one of the better sides in Australasia, can he really be backed to make a difference in a World Cup playoff?
It’s vital that the key players answer these questions before the all-important tournament in Japan.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images