Boks must make own luck

The Springboks need to ditch the victim mentality sooner rather than later if they are to have any chance of winning the 2015 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Two weeks ago at a press conference in Johannesburg, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster made a powerful comment that summed up the state of the game as well as the challenge currently facing top-flight teams and management.

Foster was asked about New Zealand’s 27-25 defeat to South Africa in the final match of the 2014 Rugby Championship. The question was simple: ‘What do you need to do to ensure you don’t lose another tight game at the death?’ While Foster answered in a matter-of-fact tone, the content of his response was complicated and more than a little troubling.

Foster referred to the result-shaping incident that occurred in the dying moments of that 2014 clash. Liam Messam’s shoulder charge on Schalk Burger was replayed on the big screen at Ellis Park, and ultimately influenced referee Wayne Barnes’s decision to penalise the All Blacks. The Boks elected to kick for goal, and Pat Lambie’s successful attempt edged the hosts into the lead.

There was another incident right on full-time. The All Blacks controlled possession as the clock wound down, and took play deep into South African territory. The Boks proceeded to flood the breakdown, and No 8 Duane Vermeulen got his immense body over the ball. Barnes awarded a penalty to the Boks which ended the contest. However, in the months that followed, I heard from more than one source that it was the kind of call that could have gone either way.

A year later, it was interesting to hear how the All Blacks have responded to such decisions, and how they are planning to cope with similar challenges at the 2015 World Cup.

‘We need to avoid putting ourselves in another situation where we are vulnerable to any last-minute refereeing decisions,’ Foster said. It was a mission statement ahead of the big games of the Rugby Championship, as well as the more important clashes at the subsequent global tournament.

Foster’s comment was an indictment on the state of officiating at Test level. At the same time, it confirmed that the All Blacks, the No 1 side on the planet, aren’t expecting any favours. They want to be the masters of their own fate. They don’t intend to leave much to chance.

New Zealand will endeavour to win the set pieces and the battle at the gainline, and will look to play in their opponent's half as the game rushes towards a climax. That, they believe, will improve their chances of winning big Tests and ultimately another World Cup title. It’s a lesson that every rugby nation should take to heart.

It’s easy to get hung up on the principle of the matter. Yes, the state of refereeing is a joke. The situation won’t be rectified in the near future. That much is apparent by the quality of official that has been appointed for the World Cup.

Most of the referees on that panel have made game- and championship-costing mistakes over the past four years. It’s sad to think that the self-same individuals could do similar damage at the coming tournament.

Unfortunately, this is the world in which we currently live, and a world in which the best teams must adapt if they hope to thrive and succeed. It’s worth remembering that, regardless of the state of officiating, there will be a winner at the end of the World Cup.

Poor refereeing is often used as an excuse for failure. Indeed, the Boks have cause to criticise the official in each of their past four matches, which have all ended in defeat.

The decision to yellow card Cornal Hendricks in the Test against Wales was farcical. The penalty against Heinke van der Merwe at the end of the game against the Wallabies has been questioned by the Bok coaching staff, as has the legality of the lineout manoeuvre that culminated in the winning try for the All Blacks at Ellis Park. As for the recent defeat to Argentina, the Boks will have many reasons to feel aggrieved with Romain Poite's performance.

And yet the more pertinent question is: could the Boks have done better in those fixtures? Could they have produced a stronger performance at the breakdown and on defence? Could they have kicked better, and controlled that final quarter via a superior territorial approach? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

While the standard of refereeing was unacceptable, so too was the quality of South African performance. They were never dominant at the point of contact, and their kicking game was often second-rate.

The matches against Wales, Australia and New Zealand were all lost in the latter stages. To paraphrase Foster, the Boks got themselves into a situation where they were at the mercy of a official’s decision. They could have won all three matches, but instead, they lost. And for that, they must accept the blame.

Much needs to change for the Boks over the next month or so. They will be bolstered by the return of several veterans in the lead-up to the World Cup, and one would hope that they ditch the victim mentality and start taking responsibility for their failures. While they have been done no favours by referees in recent matches, they have played a significant role in their own demise.

Five lessons from the past weekend's Rugby Championship matches

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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