The Springboks were physically and mentally outplayed in an away Test for the umpteenth time when they suffered a record defeat to Argentina in Mendoza, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks have won three out of 15 away Tests since the start of the 2016 season. What’s it going to take for the powers that be to address this issue?
The Bok team, in its current guise, should not be spoken about as genuine Rugby Championship or World Cup title contenders. Until the Boks start winning away from home more regularly, and until they regain their physical aura, they will finish every major tournament as also-rans.
The recent result in Mendoza wouldn’t have shocked those who followed the 2018 Super Rugby tournament closely. All four South African franchises were hammered by the Jaguares in matches played in Argentina. The South African teams combined for 14 losses in 16 games in Australasia, as well as two straight defeats in Asia.
However, the limp and gutless performance by the Boks in Mendoza this past Saturday came as a complete surprise.
In the build-up to the match, the players told local journalists to expect a gladiatorial encounter at the breakdown. They swore off complacency, and would not accept a single compliment about their recent bonus-point win over Argentina in Durban.
As it happened, the Bok forwards were slow to the rucks and easily out-muscled by their Pumas counterparts at the breakdowns, collisions and mauls. The backs only made matters worse with their mindless attempts to shovel the ball wide – well behind the gainline.
The defence was shambolic. As many as 12 tackles were missed in the first 30 minutes, and the Boks conceded three tries in that period. Argentina went to half-time with a 27-7 lead.
I travelled to Johannesburg and Bloemfontein to watch the Boks play England this past June. I was in Durban last week to watch them tackle Argentina.
The Boks went on to win all three games convincingly, but there was a time – during the first half – of all three Tests where I sat in the press box and thought to myself: ‘The Boks have been poor and could well lose’.
I got the same feeling when Pumas flyhalf Nicolás Sánchez crossed for his side’s third try in Mendoza this past Saturday. At that point, I started to remember South Africa’s recent record abroad and decided that a comeback in that particular situation was highly unlikely.
The visitors showed little fight in the second stanza, and only proceeded to play into the Pumas’ hands with their over-expansive endeavours.
The Boks had more than 60% of the possession over the course of the game, but their inability to win the collisions and breakdowns – and indeed the territorial battle – cost them dearly. The Pumas were more ‘conservative’ by comparison, with fewer carries, metres made, passes and offloads. They scored more points and tries, though.
It makes you think about labels such as ‘conservative’ and ‘expansive’ makes you ask what the better Test teams should be trying to achieve if winning games and tournaments is their primary objective.
Ask the Pumas if they care about perceptions of a conservative approach – they kicked 31 times from hand – after scoring their biggest victory over the Boks in history. Ask the Boks if they are comforted by the fact that they showed more attacking intent than their opponents in that particular fixture.
Winning matters. For Rassie Erasmus, a coach who has been honest up to now about his priorities, this result in Mendoza will come as blow.
Earlier in the day, the All Blacks ripped the Wallabies to shreds. The Wallabies lost the battle at the gainline as well as the battle for territorial dominance. They missed 39 tackles. Beauden Barrett scored four of the All Blacks’ six tries.
Of course, the All Blacks were superb at the set piece, in the air, and made every half-chance with ball in hand count. Their superior fitness was patent in the second stanza once again.
There’s been talk that the All Blacks are vulnerable, and that they may surrender their Rugby Championship crown this year. Based on the performances in the first two rounds of the tournament, however, one can’t see any side beating the All Blacks in this year’s tournament.
The Boks have been done no favours by a tournament schedule that sees them travelling to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in the space of four weeks. The performance in Mendoza this past Saturday cannot, however, be blamed on travel fatigue.
If anything, the Pumas would have been more tired than their Bok counterparts after journeying to South Africa and back in the space of a week. One also needs to remember that the bulk of the squad was involved with the Jaguares in the recent Super Rugby tournament, and are in dire need of rest.
No excuses. The Boks were poor this past Saturday. The players, as well as the coaches, need to accept responsibility and to acknowledge that the team’s form away from home is a significant problem.
The scary thing is that the Boks don’t have a lot of time to turn things around. They will return to South Africa for a few days before departing for Australia.
They haven’t beaten the Wallabies in that part of the world since 2013 or the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2009. There’s been little in recent performances to suggest they will succeed where other – more experienced and arguably better – Bok sides have failed.
At the very least, one would hope that they remain competitive. The Boks conceded 32 points in Mendoza this past week, and a similar showing could see them conceding 40 or more points in New Zealand for the third successive season when they visit Wellington on 15 September.
Overall, they have to address their physical and mental failings away from home. Later this year, the Boks will be looking to score their first win against England at Twickenham since 2014, as well as their first win against Wales in Cardiff since 2013.
South African rugby fans may want to believe a win against the All Blacks is not far off, and that a 2019 World Cup title triumph is a possibility. The recent loss in Mendoza, however, confirmed that the Boks won’t reach the world rugby summit any time soon.
Photo: Andres Larrovere/AFP/Getty Images