The Springboks must evolve their game over time under Allister Coetzee, but it's South Africa’s traditional strengths that will be integral to ensuring the June Test series against Ireland is a success, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
This past weekend’s round of Super Rugby action was a sobering affair. The Sharks lost to the Chiefs. The Waratahs edged the Stormers. The Jaguares hammered the Kings, and the Lions were humbled at home by the Hurricanes. The only ray of light was the Bulls’ impressive win over the Force in Perth.
Understandably, though, most of the reaction and recriminations from the weekend have revolved around the Lions’ 50-17 hammering at the hands of the Hurricanes. The Lions, widely regarded as South Africa’s best side this season, found themselves completely and utterly outplayed.
It served as another stark reminder that New Zealand teams simply won’t be beaten at their own game. Moreover, the prospect of opponents running the ball back at them is undoubtedly one that excites them because it’s sure to present opportunities on the counter-attack.
The Springboks suffered a similar fate against the All Blacks in an epic Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park in 2013. Needing to win with a bonus point, the Boks played with flair and freedom, and the match was an appealing spectacle from a running-rugby point of view as they scored four fantastic tries.
The All Blacks, though, pounced on opportunities that arose from errors and demonstrated their superiority with ball in hand to score five tries of their own and come away with a 38-27 win and the Rugby Championship title.
Although the Springboks played too much rugby on that occasion, we should not forget that it was during this middle period of Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as Bok coach that he did begin to get the Boks to play a more dynamic, all-round brand of rugby.
In 2013 and 2014, there were some immensely memorable victories, none more so than the return fixture at Ellis Park that saw a young Handré Pollard lead the Boks to a 27-25 victory over the All Blacks. Unfortunately, as the pressure began to build on Meyer as the World Cup drew closer and unexpected results went against the side, he reverted to type and the Boks regressed to a largely one-dimensional approach.
Don’t get me wrong. As a rugby fan, that 2013 Test at Ellis Park was a joy to watch. As has been the Lions’ attacking, ambitious rugby that’s offered so much entertainment. Lions coach Johan Ackermann has said it’s a style of play that suits the players at his disposal, and there’s no doubt South Africa does have players with the necessary skills.
But it’s been clear once again that it’s a game plan that will certainly not work against all opposition (read New Zealand opposition). There needs to be a better balance to their play when the situation demands it. There has to be a plan B.
Coetzee has said he’s been pleased to see South Africa’s Super Rugby coaches all generally working towards ensuring their teams begin to offer more with ball in hand. This is key to the Springboks being able to do the same. But it’s the Bulls who have actually begun to find the best balance to their game.
The team from Pretoria has retained their traditional strengths at the set pieces, in terms of physicality up front and with their kicking game. But they’ve also complemented that with balanced attack. It’s a blueprint that may well make them the best-placed South African side to beat a top New Zealand opponent. Unfortunately, that opportunity may only arise in the playoffs.
From a national perspective, Coetzee will have such limited time to prepare the Boks for the upcoming Tests against Ireland, and there will be a need to keep things simple and direct. However, over the next year or two, and if South Africa’s Super Rugby sides all continue with their endeavours to offer more with ball in hand, he will be able to evolve the Boks’ style of play to incorporate the high-paced approach he’s spoken of.
As always, though, the primary goal for the Springboks will remain to be able to beat the All Blacks consistently. Yet, as we’ve been reminded once again in Super Rugby, it’s a prospect that appears completely unlikely at the moment.
South African rugby must move forward, and there are signs of that beginning to happen. But our traditional strengths need to become something we cherish and celebrate rather than lament, particularly against New Zealand sides, and certainly against the Irish this June.
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