The reaction from the Springbok camp following this past weekend’s loss to the Wallabies, and ahead of this Saturday’s blockbuster clash with the All Blacks, has been particularly revealing, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Immediately after the Boks’ second humbling defeat by Australia on Saturday, Jacques Nienaber and Siya Kolisi fronted up at a post-match media conference.
Disappointment dripped off the Bok coach as he apologised for the performance, admitting that the team – including himself – would need to take a close look at where they were going wrong, and have some honest conversations.
Siya Kolisi, who had previously suggested the Springboks could, and would, be better in the rematch against the Wallabies, was equally honest in acknowledging that the side had run out of steam and let themselves down once again.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard was the next to step into the media spotlight. Normally affable and engaging, on this occasion he looked angry. It was clear to see how much the result genuinely hurt, and how personally the Springboks had taken it.
Clearly, the change room was a sombre place to be in the immediate aftermath of back-to-back losses that were last experienced in 2018.
Alongside Pollard sat Vincent Koch, sporting two black eyes. It looked as if he had just come through a boxing bout and still, somehow, his deadpan expression suggested that 12 rounds in the ring might have been preferable to suffering another loss to the Wallabies.
Such reactions were understandable on Saturday. Yet, by the time Tuesday’s team announcement conference rolled around, the mood had clearly shifted.
It looked like there had been a hard mental reset. As Nienaber also admitted, there had been some straight talking and tough conversations, and the Boks were now clear on the way forward.
In the popular ‘Chasing the Sun’ documentary that followed the 2019 World Cup triumph, the Springboks regularly revealed how a key part of their pre-match preparation involved identifying the ‘soul’ of the opposition. Effectively, it was about pinpointing what made each team tick, and how to successfully combat the unique strengths each opponent posed.
Fast forward to the present, though, and it’s interesting that the Springboks have spent the last few days looking to rediscover their own ‘soul’.
“Obviously, we are not going to say too much about what we changed in our plans, but we had a good look at how we played, and we were brutally honest,” Nienaber said on Tuesday after bringing Lood de Jager and Kwagga Smith into the starting lineup, while adding the experienced Elton Jantjies and Frans Steyn to the bench.
“There are one or two [things] that we will fix and rectify going into this weekend’s game. And then probably revisit what our soul is, what we do as South Africans and what we enjoy doing, and probably going back to that.”
The Bok coach admitted the team had strayed too far from their blueprint on Saturday, at times forcing the play before having earned the right to go wide.
“I think, if you look at what Australia did, they probably beat us at our own game,” Nienaber acknowledged. “I don’t think Australia made even 70 passes in the whole game …
“I do think we got caught up a little bit in that, so we had a good look at that in terms of what our soul is, and I do think we played probably double the amount of rugby that Australia did.
“That’s not to say that we don’t need to play rugby, but you must play rugby when it’s on – when the opportunity is there. And we probably pushed it a little bit when the opportunity wasn’t on: when they had a settled defence, when they maybe gave us a bit of kick space in behind, we probably got caught up and forced things in terms of carries.
“And then when the opportunity was there to run, we probably kicked when we maybe should’ve gone for another option.”
Under pressure now, the Springboks are going to revert to what they know works best, and the strengths that they are familiar and comfortable with.
It’s going to be reminiscent of the pre-match sentiments Rassie Erasmus revealed before the World Cup semi-final against Wales when he fired up the team by suggesting they revert to a South African approach that few teams can match. It went along the lines of “Let’s physically f**k them up”.
At the end of the day, this Bok team respond well when they take things personally, and find more than just rugby reasons to add to their motivation levels.
A 100th Test against New Zealand in a rematch against their arch-rivals for the first time in two years offers up more than enough emotion, but then add two disappointing defeats to the mix, along with the frustration of the way Jasper Wiese’s disciplinary hearing was handled, or the condescending remarks from former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains, and you have a pressure cooker set for explosion.
Expect a fierce backlash from the Springboks on Saturday. After all, a period of soul-searching would have left them in no doubt about what style of play sets them apart, and why straying too far from that is no longer an option.