There is enough history to ensure Saturday’s semi-final result at Twickenham is not a foregone conclusion for the All Blacks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The Springboks are in the World Cup semi-finals, a situation far healthier than the Monday following the infamous defeat against Japan. For that reason alone, every South African supporter should be in good spirits and there should be no complaints.
Life, rugby-wise, should have been good since Duane Vermeulen’s strength and vision allowed Fourie du Preez a match-winning try with just six minutes to play.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer would have felt vindicated for trusting the recovery from injury of Vermeulen and Du Preez. Neither played any Test rugby before the World Cup and neither started in the historic defeat against Japan.
Vermeulen has improved with every minute of the action and Du Preez has been a masterclass since taking over the captaincy.
There will be a great sense of satisfaction and achievement from within the Bok squad on making the last four.
It is an improvement on the 2011 World Cup quarter-final exit and it is also better than most predicted after the embarrassing defeats to Argentina in Durban and Japan in Brighton.
The Boks, in the immediate aftermath of the win against Wales, would have felt comfortable that the first play-off job had been done.
An analysis of the Boks’ 23-19 win doesn’t make for as comfortable reading as the simplicity that reads the Boks are 2015 World Cup semi-finalists. Wales were brave and heroic in defence, a bit like Australia were the previous week against the same Welsh. Unfortunately, the similarities in South Africa’s attacking game were uncomfortably on par with the impotency Wales had displayed against the Aussies.
Defence-orientated play-off matches always make for drama and tense viewing. But the entertainment is limited to the purist and it can also create an illusion of a good team appearing very good. Matches in which two limited attacking teams rely on robust defence can mask inadequacies. And it would be wrong to excuse the Boks’ lack of attacking variance and potency because of the Welsh bravery in making more than a 100 tackles than the dominant Boks.
The Boks, with a decided possession and field-position advantage, should have put Wales away by 15-20 points. Instead, the Boks found themselves a point down going into the final six minutes.
The Bok management will find solace in the fact that the Boks effectively got one chance and made it a match-winning one. But to find solace in only creating that one chance, from a set phase, would be denial, delusion and an insult to the individual ability of those wearing the Bok jersey.
The Boks have skills. We saw that against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, but they don’t have the confidence to always back an attack-orientated approach, especially in big game scenarios.
The Boks, since the defeat against Japan, have gone back to a more traditional mindset, in which risk is a banned word. It’s not a bad thing if the only intent is to win the next play-off match, but it does show how little the Boks have evolved their game in the past four years.
Evolution is secondary to winning in the next two Saturdays. For all the Bok attacking limitations and the All Blacks attacking magnificence against France, expect the Boks to stick to a game plan based on physicality, structure, percentage play and as little risk with ball in hand as possible.
The Boks always feel they have that one Saturday every five Tests in which they do just enough to edge the All Blacks. The All Blacks also accept there is that one Test that does still go the way of the Boks.
It would be easy to dismiss the Boks’ semi-final chances simply because we want them to play like the All Blacks and demolish a team like the All Blacks did France. Let’s accept that we don’t and we aren’t skilled enough to do it.
But let’s keep faith that there is enough history in this fixture to ensure Saturday’s result is never a fait accompli for New Zealand.
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