Boks must stick to strengths

The Springboks can beat the All Blacks this season, but not via a high-tempo approach, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Test at Eden Park was an action-packed blockbuster. There was drama, violence, and even a few high-speed chases. As far as the result was concerned, there was a predictable ending.

The All Blacks were expected to win at Eden Park. The plot twist was the margin of victory, as well as the manner in which they dominated in every single facet.

Some feel that the All Blacks have reached a new level, and that rugby is better for their evolution. While this may be true, it would be foolish for other teams, especially the Boks, to follow suit.

The Boks will play the All Blacks in Wellington on 13 September, and in Johannesburg on 4 October. They will need to win at least one of these games if they are to claim that elusive Rugby Championship title.

These goals are still within reach, provided the Boks don’t bow to public pressure and try to emulate the All Blacks’ high-tempo approach. As was witnessed at Ellis Park last year, this strategy may yield some spectacular tries, but not victory. It's a strategy that plays into All Blacks hands.

The game at Ellis Park was hailed as the most entertaining contest of 2013, and a great advertisement for rugby union. The Test at Eden Park this past Saturday was also commended for the spirit in which both teams played.

However, in a contest of that nature, there is only ever going to be one winner. 

After the 2013 clash at Ellis Park, Heyneke Meyer lamented the fitness of his charges. He pointed to this shortcoming again when reflecting on the Boks’ season in late November, 2013.

In February, the Bok coach told this website that he wanted the Super Rugby franchises to manage elite players accordingly. Meyer hoped that the players would be at their physical peak in the Rugby Championship.

Unfortunately, the franchises continued to play South Africa’s best players into the ground during the 2014 Super Rugby season. Those who have not fallen foul to fatigue-induced injury are physically exhausted, and will be hard-pressed to move up a gear at the backend of the Rugby Championship.

Until South African rugby gets its house in order, until there is a genuine drive by the unions and franchises to serve the national team, the Boks will always be at a disadvantage. They have improved over the past two seasons, but imagine how good they could be if they were helped rather than hampered by their respective unions?

New Zealand’s display at Ellis Park was a triumph for their central-contract system. Their players peaked in the final stages of the 2013 Rugby Championship. They moved up a gear in the final minutes of that decider in Johannesburg, and clinched the title.

Their superior fitness was evident once again in the recent clash with Australia. The Wallabies tried to match them in a high-tempo clash, and were blown off the park.

The Boks were the last side to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand. In fact, they won all three of their Tests against the All Blacks in 2009 thanks to a game plan that relied on accurate tactical kicking and abrasive defence.

From turnover ball, the Boks were clinical. Many may have forgotten about the quality of tries scored by the Boks in one of their best-ever seasons.

Post-2009, the All Blacks changed their game plan. They concentrated on improving their lineout, defence and tactical kicking.

Since making those adjustments and turning their weaknesses into strengths, they have won four Sanzar titles and a World Cup. They have maintained their position at the top of the IRB's world rankings.

The All Blacks have always been a great attacking side, but what’s changed in recent years is their ability to manufacture scoring chances through their kicking game and defence. Saturday’s game against Australia was yet another case in point. They were quick to pounce on Wallabies errors, and translate opportunities into points at the other end of the park.

The Boks are the one side in the world who can match the All Blacks' physicality and kicking game. If Victor Matfield is in tow, the Boks will challenge the All Blacks' lineout, which is currently the best on the planet.

What the Boks shouldn't try to do is match the All Blacks in a high-tempo running game. It's not that the Boks can't play at that level of intensity, it's just that they can't maintain it for 80 minutes. They learned that lesson the hard way in 2013.

Nothing has changed in 2014. The Super Rugby teams have continued to look out for their own interests. Key players have been pushed to breaking point, and some are currently sidelined because of the heavy workload.

Until that system is rectified, the Boks should stick to the approach that serves them best. They must force the All Blacks to fight them in the trenches in a less open contest. It may not be as entertaining for the neutral viewer, but it will provide the Boks with a chance of winning.

Winning is the aim of the game, and the primary objective for the Boks in 2014 is to beat the All Blacks. Losing while playing a more entertaining brand of rugby will be no consolation.

Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli