SA Rugby magazine’s panel of experts tells JON CARDINELLI what the Springboks need to do to end their losing streak against the All Blacks.
‘You’re not really a Springbok until you’ve played against the All Blacks,’ says former Test wing Breyton Paulse of the 97-year-old rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand. ‘That is what we used to tell each another as players. As South Africans, we don’t just grow up with a dream to represent the Boks. We grow up hoping we will have the chance to face the All Blacks.’
John Smit was one of those kids who obsessed over the haka and the fierce contest that followed. Even now, seven years after his international retirement, the former Bok skipper speaks of the rivalry with reverence.
‘You grow up watching those South Africa-New Zealand games and then you get your chance to be a part of it. It’s a massive step up in every way,’ Smit says. ‘When you’re a Bok playing against the All Blacks, there’s always a lot more at stake.’
What does the rivalry mean to the All Blacks, though? They’ve won 15 out of 17 Tests against the Boks over the past nine years. These results, as well as the recent margins, suggest there is only one team in this contest.
‘The rivalry may not be dead, but it has lost its magic,’ concedes Paulse. ‘That’s down to the Boks’ struggles in recent times.’
Nevertheless, the All Blacks have a deep respect for the Boks and the history associated with this fixture. Jean de Villiers, the last man to lead the Boks to a win over the All Blacks in 2014, was reminded of that when he linked up with All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu in 2015.
‘I spent the day with Jonah at the Springbok Experience Museum in Cape Town on the 20th anniversary of the 1995 World Cup final,’ he says. ‘It was great to get his take on the rivalry and to see how closely the New Zealanders hold it to their hearts.
‘The All Blacks performed the Kapa o Pango for the first time in 2005. It was pretty special for me and the other Boks who played that day to be on the other side of what was an emotional performance. Tana Umaga led the haka, and what followed was a brilliant contest between the Boks and an especially fired-up All Blacks side.
‘Of late, the results haven’t reflected the rivalry, though,’ De Villiers adds. ‘South Africa have fallen behind and that is something that needs to be rectified.’
FINDING A WINNING FORMULA
The All Blacks have won 99 out of 111 Tests since the start of 2010. They’ve suffered the odd loss during that period – nine in fact – and yet no team has come close to challenging them for top spot in the World Rugby rankings.
The Boks have always measured themselves against the All Blacks, though. In searching for their next win against the old foe, they would do well to consider what has brought them success in the past.
‘There are a few boxes you need to tick in order to beat the All Blacks,’ says Smit, who led the Boks to some monumental victories between 2004 and 2011. ‘Your error rate has to be at its absolute lowest. If you don’t produce an accurate first-phase performance and if you don’t respect possession, you will never beat them.
‘We were successful against them for a time and they actually started to change the way they played to circumvent our strengths. They avoided kicking to touch, as they were wary of Victor Matfield and our lineout prowess. They looked to employ those quick throw-ins and became a lot more dangerous on the counter-attack as a result. They tried to keep the ball alive a lot more, to speed things up and ultimately prevent us from implementing our game.
‘We played direct rugby and we were successful. That Bok side was blessed with a number of great ball-carriers who were able to get across the gainline and secure possession. The All Blacks don’t really enjoy it when these big South African boys come around the corner phase after phase.
‘Even now, the direct approach has yielded success when you think about how well the Sharks did against the New Zealand sides in the Super Rugby tournament,’ Smit adds, referring to the Sharks’ wins against the Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders. ‘Getting that part right was crucial in the past. What’s more, we always had strong, tactical No 9s and 10s who kept us in the right areas of the field.’
Dominating up front and winning the territorial battle is only the first step to success, though.
‘When we bullied the All Blacks up front, we usually came out on top,’ says Paulse, who featured in the win over New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup third-place playoff, as well as several victories in South Africa. ‘Things have changed a bit since I played, in terms of the Boks and the game as a whole. I’m pleased to see that the current Bok side is looking to harness other strengths and that Rassie Erasmus is embracing a new mindset.
‘Handré Pollard, Willie le Roux, Aphiwe Dyantyi and S’bu Nkosi are all natural ball players. Damian Willemse is another exciting player who must jol with the side sooner rather than later. The Boks have to get the basics right and implement the right defensive systems to be successful, but it’s good to know we have more options on attack. When that all clicks, the Boks are going to be a force to be reckoned with.’
A dominant forward performance along with an innovative and clinical backline showing may still prove insufficient. While the Boks outplayed the All Blacks for much of the Test at Ellis Park in 2014, it took a 55m penalty goal by Pat Lambie in the 78th minute and a crucial breakdown steal by Duane Vermeulen in the dying seconds to secure the result.
‘That team came close to beating the All Blacks on several occasions,’ says De Villiers, who led them between 2012 and 2015. ‘We believed we were good enough to beat them. When we eventually got over the line in 2014, the reaction of the players was revealing.
‘Some of the guys who hadn’t beaten the All Blacks before were absolutely elated. Others – such as the players who had done it before – were a bit calmer. Perhaps that showed who truly believed a win against the All Blacks was achievable. It shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, though. We should expect to beat them.
‘We make a big thing about the rivalry, and rightly so, but the players have to believe they are good enough to beat New Zealand. There is a lot of respect for the All Blacks, but you have to treat them as just another team on the day.’
CHASING VICTORY IN NEW ZEALAND
Will anyone bet on the Boks winning in New Zealand this season, or in the near future? The All Blacks have lost one game in 52 Tests played at home since 2009.
The Boks have won three matches in New Zealand since the dawn of the professional era. De Villiers starred for the tourists in the 2008 and 2009 victories, while Smit captained the Boks when they clinched the 2009 Tri-Nations title in Hamilton.
‘Ricky Januarie produced a moment of brilliance to get us over the line in 2008,’ De Villiers recalls. ‘The following year, the Boks produced a great collective effort to win in Hamilton. That side was stacked with X-factor players and it was completely united. Part of the belief in that side was down to the fact we had beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2008 and then twice in the early stages of the 2009 Tri-Nations. Winning became a habit. As we’ve seen lately, however, losing can also become a habit.’
The odds were against the Lions when they travelled to Christchurch for the Super Rugby final. Every year, the Boks face similar challenges when they journey to New Zealand to face the All Blacks. That shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a defeat or a poor performance, though.
‘I laugh when people ask me about “motivation,”’ says Smit. ‘You should never be in a situation where you need to motivate a Springbok to play against the All Blacks.
‘A win in New Zealand is achievable. The players need to be on the same page in terms of the tactics. They have to be united in their belief that they can beat the best team in the world, even in New Zealand. If the team that gets on to the plane is fragmented or unclear about its purpose, there’s no chance of victory.’
BOUNCING BACK BEFORE THE 2019 SHOWDOWN
The teams will meet three times before the World Cup – twice this season and once in the truncated 2019 Rugby Championship tournament – before clashing in the pool stage of the World Cup. It’s important for the Boks to take some confidence, if not a psychological edge, into that opening fixture in Japan.
‘The World Cup is a different beast and what happens in the buildup doesn’t usually count for much,’ says De Villiers, a veteran of three global tournaments. ‘It comes down to how you play on the day and the Boks will need to be at their very best when they face the All Blacks in that first pool match next year.
‘That said, the Boks need to go into that match with the belief that they can beat the All Blacks. Gaining a mental edge, or getting some confidence in that regard, is very important.
‘I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen from the players this season and by what I’ve heard from Rassie. He doesn’t just believe the Boks can beat the All Blacks, he believes the Boks can win in New Zealand. I think that’s ambitious, but then perhaps it is a good sign. It’s good to see they are setting their sights on that big achievement and that there is already a lot of belief within the squad.’
Smit feels the Boks have to claim at least one All Blacks scalp before the showdown in Yokohama City on 21 September 2019, a fixture that has already been billed as the clash of the pool stage.
‘In the past, I would have said a win against New Zealand before the tournament wasn’t that important. In the past few World Cups, however, the Boks have boasted a lot of experience across the board. That won’t be the case when the team travels to Japan next year,’ he says.
‘They’ve laid a good foundation this year, but it’s crucial that they go on to beat the All Blacks at least once before the 2019 World Cup. They need that win for the sake of their confidence. If I was the captain or the coach, I’d want my team to have ticked that box before facing the All Blacks in the first game of a World Cup campaign. I would want to know my players have done it before.’
– This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.