The Springboks need to start converting their attacking opportunities and making their own luck in big matches, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Clinical. How else could one describe the lineout maul that led to the game-winning try at the Stade de France on Saturday?
The Boks won a penalty and kicked it to the corner. They won the lineout. They set the maul and worked hard to generate some momentum. When the moment was right, hooker Bongi Mbonambi broke to the blindside and scored.
The execution of that play should be applauded. The upshot is that the Boks have broken their duck on tour and will take some confidence into the remaining fixtures against Scotland and Wales.
That said, clinical is not a word one would use to describe the performance in its entirety. As was the case in the tour opener against England at Twickenham, the Boks were their own worst enemies at the Stade de France.
Fortune didn’t favour the Boks at Twickenham. Referee Angus Gardner missed several offences by England in the closing stages of that Test, and failed to punish Owen Farrell’s shoulder charge on André Esterhuizen at the death.
Of course, as many pointed out in the aftermath, the Boks should not have been at the mercy of a refereeing decision so late in the game.
Did the Boks learn anything from that experience? The performance in Paris suggests not.
The Boks produced a sloppy breakdown showing which in turn compromised their ability to build an attack and pressure their opponents. For the second week in a row, the back-row combination of Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Warren Whiteley failed to fire at the rucks.
The visitors began to gain some momentum after Pieter-Steph du Toit was shifted to the flank and Vermeulen to No 8 in the 50th minute. The Boks lifted their game at the rucks, and shifted gears again when Francois Louw was introduced in the fourth quarter.
For all the pre-tour talk about adapting to northern hemisphere conditions and different referee interpretations, Rassie Erasmus is yet to select a starting back row that is suited to the challenge. One would expect that to change ahead of the clash against Scotland – another side that relishes a scrap on the deck.
The Boks enjoyed more than their fair share of luck at the Stade de France. They conceded possession on 20 occasions, yet still had several chances to hit back in the final quarter and win the game.
Cheslin Kolbe got over the line in the 69th minute but failed to get the ball down. Shortly after that, Faf de Klerk took a quick-tap and looked to find Kolbe on the blindside. The scrumhalf’s pass missed its mark by a long way, however, and drifted into touch.
What followed was anything but clinical. Handré Pollard put his side under pressure when he threw a forward pass to Jesse Kriel deep in South African territory. The Boks eventually played their way into the French half, and looked to have scored on the left wing through Aphiwe Dyantyi. The TMO, however, ruled that the final pass by Willie le Roux to Dyantyi had drifted forward. Replays confirmed it.
The game may well have ended shortly after that. When a French player stepped into touch, Nigel Owens wasn’t sure if the game was over or not. Had the assistant referee put his flag up before full time, or after?
It’s a decision that shaped the outcome of the game. In two weeks’ time, South African rugby fans may well remember that call as a crucial one in the context of the Boks’ tour and overall season.
Fortune smiled on the Boks in the second half of the fixture in Paris. While they produced a more physical and accurate showing in that period, and managed to boss possession and territory, they still needed a little luck to get them over the line.
The Boks coaches may be encouraged by what they’ve seen over the past two weeks. They might view the team’s ability to create scoring chances as a big positive.
On the other hand, the Boks have left a lot of points out on the park. They should have capitalised on their scoring chances at Twickenham and led by 20 or more points at half-time. After making the necessary adjustments in the second stanza of the Test in Paris, they should have finished more of their scoring chances and taken the game away from France.
The Boks have to be more ruthless in the coming weeks. They can’t allow a game to slip away from them, as they did when they hosted the All Blacks in Pretoria last month.
They can’t afford to spurn scoring chances to the point where they need a call to go their way at the death – as was the case at Twickenham and again at the Stade de France.
We’re yet to see a completely clinical showing by the Boks in 2018. The matches against Scotland and Wales must be viewed as an opportunity to make a statement regarding their attacking prowess and game management.
Photo: Yoan Valat/EPA