Boks have failed to kick on

Yet another defeat to the All Blacks was rooted in poor tactical kicking and game management, writes JON CARDINELLI.

‘Not good enough.' Heyneke Meyer repeated the phrase at least three times over the course of the post-match press conference on Saturday. The message should be taken to heart.

The Boks lost the World Cup semi-final at Twickenham by two points. The margin of defeat is irrelevant. The result is what matters, and it’s the result that should prompt greater scrutiny of a game plan and system that is inadequate.

The All Blacks have knocked the Boks out of the World Cup. The result at Twickenham on Saturday marked their seventh win in eight Tests played against the Boks over the past four years. Much is said and written about the close rivalry between the two sides. The win-loss record, however, makes a mockery of such statements.

The Boks still trail the world’s best side by some distance, especially in the departments of finishing, game management and tactical kicking. The Boks’ fitness has improved to the point where they can compete against the All Blacks in these 80-minute epics. And yet it’s clear that they continue to lag in other key areas.

South Africa will not close the gap between themselves and the world’s leading team unless they address these shortcomings in the lead-up to the 2016 season. Perhaps the best way to start is to look at how the game is played by the respective franchises at Super Rugby level. It should also go without saying that the Bok coaching staff needs an injection of fresh ideas.

The move towards a contracting model that resembles New Zealand’s system will ensure that South African players are managed better over the next four years. The best players in South Africa should be looking to peak in terms of their mental and physical performance in the Rugby Championship and not at the business end of the Super Rugby tournament. The national side should be the priority.

However, it was made clear this past Saturday that there are other issues besides fitness that require fixing. South African players possess the physicality as well as the bloody-mindedness to compete against and occasionally defeat their Kiwi counterparts. What’s holding them back, and what held the Boks back in the recent semi-final, is poor execution.

Essentially, South African rugby has a skills problem. Some may perceive this as an attacking issue, but there’s more to the problem than poor finishing.

The Boks' inability to manage the game and play in the right areas of the field is down to their substandard kicking and aerial skills. These skills are not being sharpened or developed, at least not to any telling degree, at provincial and Super Rugby levels.

Fourie du Preez, who plies his trade overseas, has been the one constant for the Boks at this World Cup in terms of his tactical-kicking accuracy and decision-making. Handré Pollard has battled to control the game, while Willie le Roux’s erratic tactical kicking from the back has been exposed.

Pollard, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been lauded for their attacking contributions, but a closer analysis indicates that the individuals, as well as the combination, requires work.

De Allende and Kriel have breached the gainline regularly. What’s been disappointing to see is how these centres have reacted after breaking the line. They have battled to find a supporting player, and the attacking movement has often died once they’ve gone to ground. The awareness as well as the passing ability of South Africa’s premier centres is cause for concern.

Following the All Blacks’ three consecutive defeats to the Boks in 2009, the New Zealand Rugby Union was forced to revise its structures as well as the focus of its Super Rugby franchises. A decision was taken to improve areas such as the lineout and tactical kicking.

The New Zealand Super Rugby franchises improved in these areas, and eventually started to set the standard. Today, the All Blacks are the best side in the world, not only because of their understanding of attacking space and peerless finishing ability, but because of their dedication to the lineout and kicking game. The All Blacks realise that a team can’t attack without winning this set piece or the battle for territory.

The Boks will never be good enough if the South African rugby system does not change. That said, they may also continue to struggle if the national coaching staff remains as is.

Something was missing from the South African coaching puzzle back in 2006. It wasn’t until Eddie Jones was brought on as a technical advisor for the 2007 World Cup that the Boks really start to click.

Whether Meyer stays on as head coach or not, Saru needs to make changes to that coaching contingent and include one or two crack coaches who challenge the status quo and lend the Boks an edge. A good place to start would be in the departments of handling skills and tactical kicking.

Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli