Rassie Erasmus can’t afford to gamble on a solitary sharpshooter or ignore the fact that the Springboks’ goal-kicking woes run deep, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How many Tests have been won by successful goal kicks? How many World Cups?
Joel Stransky and Jonny Wilkinson won the World Cup for their respective nations via an extra-time drop goal. Stephen Larkham’s effort in the 1999 World Cup semi-final went a long way towards earning the Wallabies the title.
The Springboks beat England in the 2007 decider via a clinical place-kicking performance. Other factors contributed to that triumph, such as the fierce forward showing and accurate overall defensive effort. Would they have prevailed, however, if Percy Montgomery and Frans Steyn did not convert so many chances on goal?
The Boks were the best team in the world in 2009. Morné Steyn slotted a couple of crucial kicks to clinch the second Test as well as the series against the British & Irish Lions. Steyn carried that goal-kicking form through to the Tri-Nations, and the Boks went on to win five out of six games.
We could go on and on. It takes a team to create goal-kicking opportunities. It takes a special individual, however, to translate those chances into points and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
In the dying moments of a game, that individual may find himself in a position to win the Test for his team.
The reasons for the Boks’ struggles over the past three seasons are many, and well documented. What hasn’t been addressed is the absence of a specialist kicking coach, and why the head coach has treated goal-kicking – and other aspects of kicking – as an afterthought. As the record shows, the Boks have left a lot of points on the park and lost several tight games through wayward goal-kicking.
We’ll get into the details of those missed opportunities in a minute. First, let’s consider how the incumbent coach has opted for one specialist goal-kicker in his squad in three of the past six Tests.
Erasmus raised a few eyebrows when he omitted Elton Jantjies from the match-day squad ahead of the second Test against England. It left the Boks without any specialist flyhalf cover on the bench, and no specialist goal-kicker in the 23 apart from Handré Pollard.
Erasmus said that fullback Willie le Roux would cover flyhalf in an emergency. Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk would kick for goal if Pollard could not.
Jantjies wasn’t selected for the Tests against Argentina. This time, Erasmus said that De Klerk or Test rookie Damian Willemse would kick for goal if Pollard went off injured.
One can understand what Erasmus is trying to do in terms of player development ahead of the World Cup. By omitting Jantjies, Erasmus has been free to include another back on the bench. It’s allowed him to have a look at someone like Willemse in a Test environment.
This decision appears to be at odds with Erasmus’ mandate to win games, though. Indeed, the indifferent and at times woeful goal-kicking performances over the past few seasons have highlighted the need for specialist cover. It’s an area that requires urgent attention, before the coming clashes against Australia and New Zealand, and before the World Cup in Japan next year.
This is not another story about who should start at No 10 for the Boks. Both Pollard and Jantjies have work to do before the World Cup. Both should travel to that tournament – there are no better-experienced options available – and if Erasmus is serious about winning big games, both should feature in the match-day squad.
Pollard’s two-from-seven goal-kicking performance against Argentina in Durban didn’t cost the Boks the game. On another day, against a better side, it may have. Surely the Boks would have been better served with another goal-kicking option on the bench, an insurance policy for when Pollard has an off-day in front of the posts.
In 2016, South African rugby suffered a terrible season on all fronts. So much was made of the team’s poor attack and defence, but it may be a little-remembered fact that the Boks converted only 74% of their chances on goal and left as many as 50 points on the park. A more accurate kicking performance would have seen them winning rather than losing to Argentina in Salta, and drawing rather than losing to Italy in Florence.
The Boks showed an improvement in 2017, converting 81% of their chances and leaving 36 points on the park over the course of 13 Tests. They were left to lament two or three important misses, though.
If Jantjies had goaled one more penalty in Perth and again in Bloemfontein, the Boks would have claimed two wins against Australia instead of two draws. Jantjies also missed a penalty against the All Blacks in Cape Town, and the Boks ended up losing 25-24.
We hear coaches speaking about missed opportunities after their sides lose a game. If one more pass had gone to hand, if the referee had awarded one more penalty, their sides may have won the match.
A goal kick is a clear scoring chance, though. An opposing team can halt a driving maul or force a would-be scorer into touch, but it can’t stop a kicker from bisecting the uprights.
Where do the Boks stand at present? Pollard’s early miss in Mendoza said it all.
The Bok flyhalf pushed a shot from right out in front wide of the posts. The visitors went on to lose by a record margin, and it could be said that Pollard’s miss did not matter in the context of the game. The miss did highlight a greater problem, though.
Collectively, the Boks have a 64% goal-kicking record after six Tests in 2018. They’ve left 30 points on the park already, and there are still eight games left in the season. From a goal-kicking perspective, 2018 may well end up being worse than 2016.
Pollard has missed 11 of his 26 shots on goal this year for a success rate of 58%. One can understand why Erasmus continues to back him to start, though, as he is a vastly superior defensive option to Jantjies in the No 10 channel.
Erasmus has received praise for backing Willemse, and I agree that the gifted youngster must travel to the 2019 World Cup as a utility option. Whether Willemse should be further burdened with the goal-kicking responsibilities at this stage is another story.
We’ve seen this on many occasions, another kicker coming off the bench to win a big game for his team. Morné Steyn came to South Africa’s rescue in the second Test against the Lions in 2009 after Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn missed four shots on goal between them.
A change in selection policy is only the start, though. The Boks have been poor in front of goal for three seasons now, and the time for specialist intervention is long overdue. Erasmus needs to bring in a kicking coach to address the problem.
Pollard, Jantjies and even Willemse would benefit from expert input. It’s an important and necessary move less than a year out from the World Cup.
Photo: Miguel Medina/Getty Images