The Springboks lost two matches and struggled in northern hemisphere conditions because their tactics and mindset were not right, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The record will show that the Boks were the only side to beat New Zealand in 2014. However, it will also show that the All Blacks finished the year ranked No 1 in the world. Again. The All Blacks also won the Rugby Championship. Again.
The Boks’ win against the All Blacks this past October deserved to be celebrated, just as Wales deserved to cheer about their drought-ending victory against South Africa last Saturday. However, the result in Johannesburg should never have been viewed as a sign that the Boks and All Blacks were equals.
The Boks made another mistake when they underestimated Ireland in the first game of their tour to Europe. Just because you beat the All Blacks doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a win against lower-ranked opposition.
And what many of these players failed to take into account was that the northern hemisphere conditions demand a different approach, physically and mentally. Playing Ireland on a wet night in Dublin is arguably tougher than playing the All Blacks on a dry afternoon on the highveld.
On Sunday at the team hotel in Cardiff, Heyneke Meyer spoke about the hard lessons learned on this four-match tour. The Bok coach was patently disappointed with the results in Dublin and Cardiff, although with a view to the long term, he feels those failures will eradicate any complacency or belief this Bok side has arrived. These defeats will spur them on over the next nine months as they prepare for the all-important World Cup.
The Boks didn’t pitch up mentally or physically in Dublin. They were tactically outplayed at the Aviva Stadium, and again at the Millennium Stadium.
They struggled to adapt to the ‘no rules’ mentality that prevails at the breakdown in this part of the world, or the referees who are really not too concerned about offside lines or hands in the ruck. The Boks' kicking game wasn’t up to standard, and their insistence of running the ball was largely counterproductive.
The match against England was the exception. The Boks dominated the collisions, and this meant the breakdowns weren’t as much of a contest. Their halfbacks enjoyed plenty of clean ball, and had the time and space to make good decisions.
The Boks’ tactics in that Test were also spot on. There was a respect for the opposition, and that meant a drive for territory before they attempted anything adventurous.
They battled for consistency in the subsequent Tests in Padova and Cardiff. The intense breakdown contests in those matches meant a dearth of quick ball, but they could have done far better in terms of their kicking and decision-making.
Intelligent rugby is all about decision-making. It involves striking the right balance between kicking and running. It also means taking into account the conditions, as well as the way the game is officiated in a particular region.
The Boks got their tactics right on the 2013 tour to the northern hemisphere, but then they were fortunate to have a host of experienced players at their disposal. Even when Fourie du Preez, the Boks' chief tactician, was unavailable for the final tour match against France, Meyer had the option of selecting another experienced and tactically astute scrumhalf in Ruan Pienaar.
The Boks missed some of those key players on the 2014 tour. Francois Louw plays his club rugby for Bath and is familiar with the nuances of the European game. Willem Alberts is a player who is ideally suited to the slower tracks of the north. Schalk Burger was outstanding when he started against England this November, and the Boks would have been more effective at the breakdowns and collisions had these men been available for the duration of the tour.
Next year, Du Preez and Pienaar will make a difference to the Boks in terms of their tactical approach. What is less certain is how the Boks will cope without Jean de Villiers, who at this stage seems unlikely to travel to the World Cup because of a serious knee injury.
The Boks will miss De Villiers’s leadership as well as the experience he brings to the midfield. If Meyer doesn’t succeed in luring Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie back from Japan in time for the World Cup, the Boks may be vulnerable in that area come September. As Meyer said on Sunday, experience is essential at World Cups, and especially in conditions such as those witnessed over the past four weeks.
The Boks will be boosted by the return of several veterans next season, but may remain thin in other areas. What they shouldn't be wanting for is desire, as some disappointing results and performances this past November leaves them with a point to prove in 2015.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images