Kiwis tighten mental grip on Saffas

New Zealand’s teams have racked up 13 out of a possible 15 regular-season wins to inflict further psychological damage on their South African counterparts, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Round 14 witnessed some significant results. The Sharks thumped the Stormers 22-10 at Kings Park. That result, as well as the Lions’ resounding 29-16 win over the Stormers at Newlands earlier in the season, served to highlight the gap between the two African conferences.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes' 34-20 victory against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld marked the end of the regular-season clashes between New Zealand and South African opposition. The results suggest that the Kiwis have improved in 2017. Included in the record of 13 wins in 15 games is a flawless seven-from-seven record in New Zealand.

Last year, the South African teams that were pitted against New Zealand opposition were far more competitive. The Lions beat the Chiefs and Blues during the regular season, while the Sharks downed the Highlanders and Hurricanes during the same period. Both the Lions and Sharks managed to win in New Zealand. Four out of six of their collective losses were by margins of six points or less.

The Kings sustained some heavy beatings at the hands of the Kiwi sides. As a result, the South African averages in 2016 were inflated. Across the 15 matches between New Zealand and South African teams, the average score was 33-24 in favour of the Kiwis. The New Zealanders were scoring an average of 4.27 tries against South African teams and conceding 2.8.

That record is nothing for South African rugby fans to shout about. Yet it is superior to the collective performances of the South African teams – namely the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers – in 2017.

Some might suggest there is no need to panic, as the Lions and Sharks may fare better against Kiwi teams in the playoffs. But it can’t be good for South African rugby when local teams are losing regularly at home and away, and by increasingly big margins. 

The average score across the 15 clashes played between New Zealand and South African teams in 2017 was 42-22. It’s plain to see that the local sides fared worse on both attack and defence this season.

In 2017, the South African collective conceded an average of six tries and missed 26 tackles per match. On attack, they averaged 2.5 tries per match.

Earlier in the season, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson highlighted the South Africans' inferior fitness levels after his team put 10 tries past the Bulls in a 62-24 rout at Loftus. This statement is certainly substantiated by the overall statistics. More often than not, South African players have battled to live with their New Zealand counterparts, especially in the latter stages of a contest.

The Bulls averaged nine points scored and 21 conceded against New Zealand teams in the second half this season. The Cheetahs were even worse, scoring only 11 points and leaking a whopping 31 on average after half-time.

The Stormers were more competitive in the second stanza of these matches, averaging 12 points scored and 17 conceded (they conceded an average of 24 in the first halves of these games). There was nothing wrong with their fitness levels in the 34-26 win over the Chiefs, and they bounced back to beat the Blues 30-22 after trailing 12-10 at the break.

That will be small consolation, though. The Cape side leaked 155 points and 24 tries on their three-game tour of New Zealand. They have no reason to feel confident ahead of a meeting with a Kiwi side in the playoffs.

Former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer often highlighted the importance of these New Zealand-South Africa Super Rugby clashes in a Test context. Meyer believed that local Super Rugby teams had to beat their New Zealand counterparts regularly, and occasionally in New Zealand, to cultivate some confidence. Meyer hoped that positive results would instill more belief in the Bok group ahead of the showdowns with the All Blacks.

On the basis of these stats and records, South Africa's top players have little reason to believe a win against the No 1 Test side in the world is within their reach. The Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers have fared far worse in 2017 than the Lions, Sharks and Kings did in 2016. As a result, the New Zealand collective has strengthened its mental hold on South Africa’s rugby teams.

It may be left to the Lions and Sharks to challenge the New Zealand dominance in the playoffs, and to give Bok fans a reason to dream of a win against the All Blacks.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli