Johannesburg Ahead of their second meeting at Ellis Park in as many weekends, there was genuine optimism – ranging from cautious anticipation to outright confidence – that the Boks would secure a rare treble of victories over the Old Foe.
It was not to be, the Boks ultimately succumbing 35-23 in a disheartening defeat. Here, Morgan Bolton looks at five takeaways from the match and finds that in the end, the Boks were their own worst enemies.
5 “Luke” how he “Pearced” us
South Africans have a tendency to target the referee when things do not go their way, and at Ellis Park on Saturday as the match progressed, there was certainly a growing sense that whistleman, Luke Pearce, was calling it in the All Blacks’ favour.
There might be some truth to it but the reality is that the Boks did not help their own cause at all.
During the match, they were asked to make 131 tackles, missing a whopping 23. In Nelspruit, they missed 25, the only difference this time around is that a desperate All Blacks capitalised on those mistakes. Moreover, New Zealand beat 23 defenders, had six clean breaks and affected seven turnovers – four more than the Boks.
The Boks also lost four of their own line-outs and conceded a scrum. Their discipline was not terrible, but it wasn’t great either and at crucial times, especially in the latter stages of the first half, their decision making was poor. They had lapses in concentration and were not as accurate, nor clinical as they were the week before.
The men in Green and Gold also had seven clean breaks and beat 17 defenders but did not use their own chances to full effect. Against an All Blacks’ side with their backs against the wall, a team cannot make those errors, regardless of what the referee decides.
4 Is it time for a strategy rethink
It certainly seems that head coach Jacque Nienaber and Co have become increasingly inflexible regarding their selection policy. Come high or hell water, the Bok think-tank sticks to their preset plans.
As the in-form player, Malcolm Marx should have started this game, but instead Joseph Dweba – who played in the second Test against Wales for 40 minutes – started in the No 2 jersey when Bongi Mbonambi pulled out of the starting XV as that was the plan. Ox Nche, who had played only 48 minutes of Test rugby this season, was also preferred ahead of Steven Kitshoff, because that was the plan.
Duane Vermeulen – a marquee player to be sure – was called into the team, but it was apparent that he lacked match-fitness. Jasper Wiese, who is not necessarily the most dynamic of players but certainly more battle-hardened – would arguably have the better starting option.
Nienaber also needs to be a bit more transparent.
When asked about Marx specifically at the post-match briefing, he rebuffed the inquiry as being “privileged”. Understandably, he doesn’t want to give away the keys to the castle, but just a little bit of insight into the decision-making process will go a long way to becalm a disappointed support-base.
3 Time to evolve the 6-2
As Nienaber rightly pointed out, the BombSquad has helped South Africa win a Rugby Championship, a Cup and a British and Irish Lions series.
On Saturday, their forward replacements came on as early as the 35th minute – there is nothing wrong with mixing up tactics, but there the sense was the call was because the Boks were losing the battle up-front and the scrap on the ground.
The concussion to Jesse Kriel early in the match, while no fault of his, added strain on the split. It also led to a less than optimal reshuffle of the backline that saw Lukhanyo Am on the wing, Damian de Allende at outside centre and three playmakers – Willie le Roux, Damian Willemse and Handre Pollard – vying for the role of first receiver. Arguably, unless Willemse is demoted to the bench, the Boks do not have the luxury of the 6-2 bench.
The tactic has worked and will continue to work, but it can also not be a static entity. It must be dynamic and evolve with the conditions and circumstances pre-match. Nienaber was pliable enough to recognise the problems in the first half to his credit, but perhaps he and his management must have a rethink ahead regarding the composition of the matchday 23.
Right now, it seems the only option Nienaber and Co will consider.
2 I Am the man
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Am, in particular, was simply outstanding. Even when he was moved onto the wing, he still had an impact on the game. More the pity that he could not do so from the comfort of his preferred position.
He was pure class during this match and honestly there are not enough superlatives to describe just how brilliant he was.
If the 28-year-old is not at least on the shortlist of Rugby’s Player of the Year, it will be a travesty. He is the best centre in the world right now but sadly Rugby has a tendency to be quite Eurocentric, so don’t hold your breath that he will be considered.
Damian de Allende also had a good game with some powerful runs, as did scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, who was mostly accurate in his play.
1 Second time around
What arguably makes this loss all the more grating, is that the Boks had it in hand.
Yes, they were below-par in the first half but that was due to the relentless onslaught of the All Blacks, which must be given the proper respect. In the second half, however, the Boks had the Kiwis on the ropes, but they simply failed wrestle the initiative away from the visitors.
The quick-tap that led to David Havili’s try was a criminal offence of farcical proportions, while gifting possession back to the All Blacks with silly box-kick tactics in the final quarter against the run of play was proof that some lessons have not been learnt. When the kicking game works, it works a treat but then it must be accurate and confident, while the opposition must also be in disarray.
Neither of those assertions were completely true on Saturday.
When the Boks were moving the ball wide, they were creating chances in the second half as the All Blacks were exhausted. So, to hand the ball back into the possession of their opponents was as ‘dof’ as it could possibly get.
Honourable Mention: SA women thrash Spain
Earlier in the day, the Springbok women dismantled their Spanish counterpart 44-5 to record their first victory over that nation on the fourth attempt. It was an impressive display by the Bok women – one that deserves all the recognition, and which shows that they are on the right path.