The Springboks must use their four World Cup pool matches to polish a game plan that relies on traditional strengths, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks touched down in England this past Saturday. After making their way through customs at Heathrow, they boarded a bus for Eastbourne. Players and members of management were still buzzing after a rousing public send-off in Johannesburg on Friday evening.
The cold weather greeting them in Eastbourne must have doused the flames of excitement. At the very least, it would have provided the group with a reality check.
This is England. This is the northern hemisphere. Adapt to the conditions, or suffer defeat and all the consequences that go with it.
I’ve heard it said by many a South African scribe and fan that too much is made of the northern hemisphere conditions. But having followed the Boks on their northern sojourns for the better part a decade, I know that the opposite is true.
When you’ve attended the big clashes at those northern coliseums and experienced those conditions first-hand, you understand why the best teams favour a conservative approach. When you’ve felt the cold wind whipping into you as you take your seat in the stands, you gain an appreciation for the challenge facing the respective goal-kickers. When you’ve observed the heavy turf cutting up and in some instances becoming a quagmire, you understand why players kick for territory rather than run every ball back.
The game played in the northern hemisphere is completely different to the game played down south. In the Vodacom Super Rugby and Rugby Championship tournaments, we’re treated to action-packed matches that are never short on tries and inspiring attacking moments. Up north, the game is more of a grind. There is often little or no flow to the contest. For a fan of southern hemisphere rugby, it can be a chore to watch.
But then, entertainment is not the name of the game. Winning is what matters, and I have no doubt the side that lifts the Webb Ellis Cup on 31 October will be remembered long after the great entertainers of the 2015 tournament are forgotten.
The Boks have travelled to England this year with the aim of winning the trophy. To achieve that objective, they need to be mindful of what works and what doesn’t in this part of the world.
Any failure or success in the recent Rugby Championship tournament will have no bearing on the World Cup campaign. The conditions at Twickenham and Ellis Park for example couldn’t be more different. The Boks must make a tactical change sooner rather than later to improve their chances of winning the global tournament.
They will play three of their pool matches at football stadiums, and the weather in England during the month of September is usually fair. That said, the Boks should be sharpening their game plan ahead of the knockout matches that will be staged on a heavy ground at Twickenham. The weather could also turn in mid- to late-October, and the Boks must be prepared to embrace what could be typically challenging northern hemisphere conditions.
The good news is that the Boks have the personnel and the game plan to be a success in such conditions. They’ve proven as much on recent tours to Europe, and have been particularly successful in England over the past nine years. If they revisit and re-implement an approach that embraces their traditional strengths, they will go far at this tournament.
That is not to say that there will be no room for X-factor players over the course of this campaign. Willie le Roux showed his value on the 2013 tour to Europe, especially in a weather-afflicted game against Scotland at Murrayfield. If the Boks manage to impose themselves physically and secure turnovers, there will be opportunities for players like Le Roux and Handré Pollard to exercise their more natural strengths.
Some will bemoan the shift to a more conservative approach, but it is an approach that all the top teams will embrace in the coming weeks. The All Blacks are another side that have the tools to succeed in the northern hemisphere, as they possess a fine pack of forwards and one of the best tactical kickers in the world in scrumhalf Aaron Smith. Any success they achieve will be on the back of those strengths.
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