The Springboks will challenge the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup if they persist with a traditional approach that is enhanced by a tactically astute halfback pairing, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks nearly beat the All Blacks at Newlands this past Saturday. To be at the ground in the final 10 minutes of the contest was to experience Test rugby at its dramatic best.
In the end, it was the All Blacks who played the big moments better; from Damian McKenzie breaking the line to score a decisive try in the 70th minute to the defence forcing a turnover after the full-time hooter.
The Boks dominated the collisions for much of the game and put three tries past the All Blacks. Allister Coetzee was stating the obvious at the post-match press conference when he said it was an improvement on what was produced in Albany three weeks earlier.
Indeed, there was nothing innovative about the Boks’ approach at Newlands. The forwards sought to boss the set pieces and collisions. Halfbacks Ross Cronjé and Elton Jantjies sought to make further inroads by kicking for their wingers to chase.
The manner in which the Boks went about manhandling the All Blacks was encouraging. The decision-making and execution thereafter, however, was less so.
Relevant questions have been asked of Cronjé and Jantjies’ ability to control the big matches. Jantjies was dropped in the wake of several error-strewn performances in the 2016 Rugby Championship. The temperament and game-breaking qualities of both halfbacks were tested and found wanting at times in the 2017 Super Rugby playoffs.
On Saturday at Newlands, Cronjé was slow to clear the ball from the ruck and ultimately allowed the All Blacks defence more time to set. While his intent to box-kick and pressure the All Blacks’ back-three was tactically sound, poor execution – and at times a weak kick-chase or aerial contest – only served to hand the visitors opportunities to counter-attack. On another day, the All Blacks may have turned those wayward kicks into try-scoring chances.
The Boks were forced to settle for a draw against the Wallabies in Bloemfontein after Jantjies missed a late attempt at goal. The flyhalf missed a penalty attempt from right in front in the recent clash against the All Blacks. The Boks went on to lose the game at Newlands by a single point.
The quality of Jantjies’ game management and execution in general play, however, should be of greater concern. Inside centre Jan Serfontein capitalised on the front-foot ball provided by his forwards, producing some powerful runs into the heart of the All Blacks defence. Jantjies, by contrast, failed to make the most of that advantage.
The Bok No 10 was caught in possession on several occasions. A charged kick resulted in a try for Ryan Crotty at a crucial stage of the first half.
It’s been argued that Jantjies is a mercurial player and that he will make mistakes in his quest to push the attacking boundaries. At this level, however, consistency is what separates the good flyhalves from the mediocre ones. The Boks certainly can’t afford to travel to the next World Cup with a flyhalf who is prone to making several big mistakes per game.
The match at Newlands proved that the Boks still have the forwards to compete against the All Blacks. The Boks would do well to build on that performance and pursue a traditional approach in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
Solutions to the halfback puzzle are less clear. Faf de Klerk and Francois Hougaard are now playing in England following unsuccessful stints at No 9 with Coetzee’s Boks. Rudy Paige hasn’t progressed over the past few seasons. Louis Schreuder had a relatively good season with the Kings in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, but is untried at Test level.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen labelled Handré Pollard the real deal in the wake of his impressive performances against New Zealand in 2014 and 2015. The 23-year-old pivot returned from a lengthy injury layoff earlier this year, but is yet to show signs of his previous form.
A fit and firing Pollard would be an asset to a Bok side looking to play a more traditional game. The Boks need him to bounce back, and sooner rather than later.
Overall, the Boks must be honest in their assessment of the Rugby Championship campaign. Their record of two wins, two draws and two losses saw them finishing in third place for the second consecutive year.
The Boks showed good physical and tactical intent at Newlands this past Saturday. That said, they still appear to be struggling on defence.
According to alloutrugby.com, the Boks missed a total of 33 tackles and finished with a relatively poor tackle completion of 83%. Opposition teams continue to target them in the wider channels. The All Blacks managed to breach the line in midfield on several occasions.
This, of course, was not an All Blacks side at full strength, or an All Blacks side with any great point to prove. And yet, New Zealand still managed to edge a physically impressive Bok side.
Coetzee and his lieutenants would do well to keep this in mind in the lead-up to the end-of-year tour and, further down the line, the 2019 World Cup.
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