No room for what-ifs at Loftus

The Springboks must be honest with themselves about their limitations and make winning their only priority at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.

‘We created so many chances on attack. What if we had taken just one more to score? What if we hadn’t missed those kicks at goal? What if the referee hadn’t made that controversial call in the dying moments of the contest? We might have won.’

Losing coaches love a good ‘what-if’ scenario. The inference is that their team has been unlucky, and that their side was just one linebreak, try or goal kick away from claiming a big win and turning a corner.

Allister Coetzee and his coaching staff have been making similar noises since the start of the Test season. This despite the fact that they’ve suffered shock losses to Ireland and Argentina and have slumped to three consecutive defeats in the Rugby Championship.

The Boks could lose to the Wallabies this coming weekend. They could lose to the All Blacks in Durban thereafter, and to England in London on 12 November. Three more defeats would stretch South Africa’s losing streak to six, and would increase their chances of finishing the 2016 season with a win record of 50% or worse.

They cannot take comfort from another narrow loss to the Wallabies this weekend. It won’t matter if they lose in the last minute to the All Blacks, or via a late penalty against England. All that will matter is that they have lost. No accolades or bonus points will be awarded for finishing within seven of the victors.

In late 2012, I spoke to then coach Heyneke Meyer and asked him to reflect on his first year in charge. The Boks had finished the season with seven wins, two draws and three losses for a win record of 58%. Meyer couldn’t resist the temptation to ask, ‘What if?’

'What if the Boks had kicked one more goal in the third Test against England in Port Elizabeth and in the game against Argentina in Mendoza? What if they hadn’t missed seven attempts at goal against New Zealand in Dunedin?'

Meyer did the maths. Three more wins would have allowed the Boks to finish 2012 with an 83% win record.

The reality is that the Boks didn’t win those games. They blew their chances, and finished short of their goal. The results were a true reflection of their ability at the time.

There are always two teams in a contest. The opposition may also have cause to lament missed opportunities, even when they finish on the right side of the scoreline. One more try by the opposition, and they may have won by 14 points instead of seven.

Three weeks ago in Brisbane, Wallabies centre Samu Kerevi crossed the Boks' tryline in the second half. Only a desperate tackle by Johan Goosen prevented Kerevi – who was guilty of carrying the ball in the wrong hand – from adding five points and taking Australia out to a comfortable lead.

On Monday, Coetzee tried to convince the media that his team is very close to clicking. He held up the narrow 23-17 defeat in Brisbane as evidence that the Boks are close to turning the corner.

‘We weren’t far away, just one more score,’ he said. ‘We can take heart from that.’ It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by his coaching staff and players over the past few days.

However, one cannot forget about the disaster that followed the match in Brisbane. The Boks conceded six tries and went down 41-13 to the All Blacks. The Test in Christchurch showed why a tactical change, as well a change in personnel, is needed sooner rather than later.

The match against the Wallabies at Loftus is a big one in the context of the Boks’ 2016 season. Even Coetzee will battle to preach about positives and progress in the wake of a fourth-straight defeat.

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli