Rousing forward performances against France and Italy should not overshadow the Springboks’ tactical and technical shortcomings, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks finished the 2015 World Cup in third place. In the immediate aftermath, coach Heyneke Meyer took aim at the South African rugby system.
South African rugby supporters raged and lamented the decline of a once proud team. The Boks, many argued, were all brawn and no brains.
Then the historic loss to Ireland in June 2016 brought South African supporters and stakeholders down to an unprecedented level of sporting depression. By the end of that three-match series, however, many were celebrating a show of character.
The Boks, they said, had fought back from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1. I remember the press conference after the latter win in Port Elizabeth. One local reporter suggested that the Boks should have a victory parade and that Allister Coetzee was a national hero.
The reality was that the Boks won the series 2-1 when they should have won 3-0. Many forget that Ireland toured South Africa without a host of experienced players.
It was quality coaching that allowed Ireland to push for an inaugural series win on South African soil. It was poor preparation and inadequate coaching that compromised the Boks.
The pattern of losing badly and then winning ugly persisted in the next 18 months.
The Boks lost to Argentina in Argentina for the first time. Then they sustained a record 57-15 hiding to the All Blacks.
Then they lost three Tests in Europe – including an inaugural loss to Italy – and finished the year with the worst season record in South African rugby history.
New lows. New levels of depression. South African rugby was looking for any sort of boost.
What happened next? The Bok beat France 3-0 in June 2017. Many hailed the performances, as well as the results, as a quantum leap forward.
Again, the reality was less palatable. Coetzee’s side was still some way off realising the standards set by Meyer’s team in late 2015.
The subsequent results confirmed as much. Wins against poor France and Argentina sides were followed by two draws against a Wallabies side in transition and two losses – including South Africa’s worst–ever Test defeat in Albany – to the All Blacks. A record 38-3 loss to Ireland followed.
The Boks have beaten France and Italy over the past two weeks. There’s reason to celebrate in the sense that the players showed some guts in Padua on Saturday.
The forwards got on top of their opponents. The return of senior players like Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw has made all the difference at the breakdown and collisions. The physical standard has been lifted.
But again, the question should be asked: Is the side in a better mental and physical state now than it was in late 2015? And what might the answer say about the coaches at the helm?
Someone asked me after the press conference on Saturday night if the result in Padua would save Coetzee’s job. For me, there should be no debate.
The Boks have not progressed since 2015. They have dipped spectacularly and then improved slightly to give one the illusion of progress.
They are no smarter or tactically astute now than they were two years ago.
Could they beat the All Blacks, England or Ireland in a World Cup playoff tomorrow? Perhaps they could deliver a brave forward showing, but certainly no tactical masterclass.
A win? You must be joking.
It was good to hear Vermeulen and Handré Pollard speaking about the spirit in the side after the win against Italy. It’s good to know that there is still something there.
That should not, however, be read as a vote of confidence in the coaching staff any more than wins against an abject France, Italy, and possibly even Wales should influence the decision to retain the current coaching team. Coetzee and co have shown that they cannot take the team forward.
There is potential in this side, particularly up front. There are leaders in the pack and Pollard has the ability to become Test rugby’s pre-eminent general.
There’s been no push for tactical evolution behind the scenes, though. There has been talk of a new culture, yet no talk of challenging ideas and championing real innovation. Another con of having a predominantly young team is that very few players are willing to question the coaches.
Change cannot come soon enough. Rassie Erasmus – the man who turned poor Cheetahs, Stormers and Munster teams into competitive units – cannot take charge soon enough.
The Boks are starting to find their physical mojo. It’s a small step forward after three or four steps back in 2016.
This group needs to be challenged, though. The players need to be reminded that they are still some way off realising the standards of 2015, and that a win over Italy, ranked No 13 in the world, should be expected, rather than celebrated.
The Boks have won two from three on this tour. The loss to Ireland in Dublin, however, should have marked the end for Coetzee and his assistants.
The fact that the Boks were outsmarted as well as outmuscled in Dublin was damning. Nothing that’s happened in Paris and Padua, and nothing that will happen In Cardiff, should change the fact that this side has made no real progress.
Photo: Eóin Noonan/Getty Images