The Springbok coaches will have their work cut out for them in the lead-up to the World Cup semi-final against the All Blacks, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How much do the Boks have left in the tank? Heyneke Meyer seemed to ask this question himself in the wake of South Africa’s last-gasp win against Wales.
The group has been under immense mental strain since losing to Japan. There were several heated altercations between players and members of management in the week that followed the 34-32 defeat. Eventually, all parties came to an agreement regarding how the team should play if they wanted to win.
Of course, the pressure to perform did not disappear. The defeat to Japan was a massive mental blow. After all, a team that loses to Japan can lose to more established rugby nations like Samoa and Scotland. The Boks were also more than a little nervous ahead of their final pool match against the USA.
Has the performance against Wales in the quarter-final settled the nerves? I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the nerves of the players and coaches are shot. Can they pick themselves up for what will be their greatest test of mettle to date: a World Cup semi-final showdown against the All Blacks?
Meyer believes the Boks can beat the All Blacks. He bases this belief on the fact that the Boks have emerged from their own ‘Pool of Death’ scenario where they’ve been fighting for survival in every single match. In one sense, they should be battle hardened and accustomed to that crushing pressure by now.
But the Boks should also be honest with themselves. The pressure in the coming semi-final will be very different to what was experienced during the group stage or even in the dramatic quarter-final against Wales.
The All Blacks will demand more of their physical and mental abilities. If the Boks don’t make the step up, they will suffer the same fate as France.
It’s in the buildup to the World Cup semi-final where the Bok coaches and management staff will really earn their keep. Professor Pieter Kruger joined the squad earlier this year for a specific purpose. The psychologist has spent the past nine months preparing the players for this situation. Yet, Kruger’s contribution over the next few days will be crucial.
Perhaps his greatest challenge will be getting fearless youngsters like Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende, as well as the cavalier Willie le Roux, to understand that they are travelling into the unknown. The pressure will be unlike anything they’ve experienced before. They may be required to respond in a very different manner.
The Boks do possess several players who have done it all before. But the grizzled veterans can’t face this Everest of a challenge alone.
Fourie du Preez needs Pollard and Le Roux to contribute more accurately on the tactical-kicking front. The Boks won’t win this semi-final if they don’t win the battle for territory as well as the contest in the air. The All Blacks have led the way in these areas for some time. The Boks, unfortunately, have regressed.
All that said, a win against the All Blacks this Saturday is not impossible. History tells us that New Zealanders have been just as susceptible to the pressure of the big occasion as any other team.
The All Blacks went into the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cup tournaments as favourites to win the title. In all three campaigns, they had the physicality in the forwards, the tactical nous in the halfbacks, and the firepower out wide to beat any team in the world. Ultimately, this proved insufficient.
The All Blacks succumbed to the pressure of the occasion. They failed to cope with the pressure applied by the underdog opposition. France shocked them in the 1999 and 2007 play-offs, and Australia bundled them out of the tournament in 2003.
The Boks have been through a lot over the past five weeks. The odds are against the South Africans finding the necessary reserves of mental and physical energy to slay an All Blacks side at the peak of its powers.
And yet, if this particular World Cup has taught us anything, it’s that results are hard-earned, and that the pressure of the occasion dictates the flow of a contest. The referee will also have a big say on the day. The team that adapts best to the game situation will come out on top.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images