The Springboks need to show some intelligence and character in backing their game plan from the outset of a contest, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Ellis Park never fails to deliver on drama. Who could forget that 2013 contest between the Boks and All Blacks, where the hosts played with freedom and intent and put four tries past the best defensive side in the world?
How about the 2014 match-up where the All Blacks rebounded in the second half but were ultimately denied by a long-range penalty goal by Pat Lambie? I still get goosebumps thinking about how the crowd reacted when that kick went over.
Nobody forgets the dramatic contests. Another reason why that 2014 Test at Ellis Park will remain in the minds of South Africans is because it represented the Boks’ only win against the All Blacks in that four-year cycle.
Unfortunately, when big wins like these are achieved in dramatic and thrilling circumstances, very little analysis is done in the aftermath. Few take the time to consider the performance as a whole, and here I am talking about players and coaches as much as the media and public.
Everybody got it wrong in the wake of the 2014 win against the All Blacks. The very next game, the Boks lost to Ireland in Dublin.
Some have even marked that loss as the beginning of the slide into mediocrity. However, one has to go back to that Test at Ellis Park, analyse the performance, and ask if the Boks were really as good as they were made out to be.
In a similar way, the emotional win against Ireland this past Saturday demands reflection. Granted, there were moments in the second half where the Boks played some good rugby and the crowd cheered as if their team had recaptured the Webb Ellis Cup. But these moments were few and far between, and the collective performance was, to sum it up in one word, shocking.
The Boks have talked a good game over the past few weeks. They were made to eat their words after the historic defeat to a 14-man side at Newlands.
Coach Allister Coetzee came out firing the following Monday in Johannesburg, and told the press that his charges had not listened to him. He then proceeded to lecture the media on the requirements of Test rugby.
Everything that Coetzee said in the buildup to the Ellis Park match made perfect sense. You need to win the physical battle. You need to play for territory. You need to stay ahead on the scoreboard and build the pressure. All of this is in line with trends of modern rugby.
But perhaps Coetzee should spend less time lecturing the media and public on points that are plain for all to see. Perhaps he needs to invest more energy into impressing this message on his charges. On the evidence of the past two performances, this Bok team does not buy into Coetzee's philosophy or does not have the skill and intelligence to implement it.
The comeback at Ellis Park will be viewed by many as impressive, but there’s still a burning question: Why do the Boks expect to dominate from the outset, and why do they need to wait until their backs are against the wall before they start fighting? Why do they wait before implementing the game plan?
I’m not suggesting that Coetzee is free of blame. The Bok coach told anybody who would listen at the time of his appointment that he would have sufficient opportunity to mould this group into a winning combination. When the squad convened in Stellenbosch three weeks ago, Coetzee assured the media and public that every one of the players was on board with the game plan.
What we've seen on the field in the first and second Tests against Ireland has served as a contradiction to these statements. The Boks have lacked intensity and desire, and at times have appeared completely clueless regarding their decision-making and tactics. We saw that again in the first half this past Saturday, when the players were looking around for somebody to give them the answers.
The Boks bounced back in the second half, outscoring the Irish 29-7. Afterwards, the media focused on the comeback. Coetzee took the opportunity to paint himself as the inspirational mentor, the coach who set the wayward rugby sheep back onto the path of rugby righteousness.
Of course, the real question was why the Boks ever strayed in the first place. All week, Coetzee and the players spoke about lifting their intensity and playing a balanced game, but in the first half at Ellis Park they were just as bad as they were at Newlands. That is an indictment on the coach as much as it is an indictment on the players.
If the Boks had lost at Ellis Park, there would have been more analysis and even a lament regarding their mental fragility. That they managed to sneak a win is a positive, but there should be just as much reflection in the buildup to the third and decisive match of the series in Port Elizabeth.
The Boks obtained their first win under Coetzee this past Saturday. However, the players as well as the coaching staff still have everything to prove in the coming game.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images