NELSON MANDELA BAY STADIUM, PORT ELIZABETH
Not even the fact that I’m still stranded at the airport here in Port Elizabeth on a Monday afternoon can dilute the happy vibe I’ve woken up with for the past 2 days following a Springbok win over the All Blacks on Saturday evening – in fact I could probably sit here at Primi Piatti waiting for my flight back to Cape Town for at least another day until my impatience at waiting starts wearing through the afterglow of a Springbok win. I’ve said on these web pages since the start of the Tri-Nations competition that the results are essentially meaningless in the context of this year’s Rugby World Cup, and just so that you know that I’m consistent and unbiased (pfft!) I’ll stick to that story, even though the Springboks emerged fairly comfortable victors in this latest instalment of the Tri-Nations roadshow.
Admittedly, we beat their B team. Much in the way that they beat ours when we sent them over there a month or so back, you can only show up and play against whatever is put in front you, and attempt to draw your conclusions as a coach and management team based on that.
Even though I am prepared to downplay the relevance of this victory in a RWC context, there are still a couple of salient points here though that requires highlighting:
Firstly, any argument (which I have already heard) that the Springboks should’ve thumped them by a greater margin than the 18 – 5 result on Saturday is nonsense. The fact that our B-side took a greater pounding over there than what their B-side took over here is irrelevant as a comparison of the 2 teams’ current form. New Zealand play a high tempo style of running rugby that will always produce more tries than South Africa’s more conservative defence-orientated game plan – particularly as they start to play the way that they are required to play in order to win the RWC, where stronger defensive systems coupled with kicking your penalties are the order of the day.
Secondly, it might not be pretty rugby, but it’s effective. Let’s face it, there’s no bonus points in a RWC, only winning and losing – most notably once the pool stages are over. Of course, there’s no satisfying some sectors of the viewing public/press: for those guys a loss is a complete calamity, and they can’t wait to spread their negative bile through our media. Those are the same guys who regard a win as a one-off fluke and who complain when the Springboks do that it wasn’t pretty enough. Pretty enough?? Are we talking about rugby test matches or are we talking about Olympic synchronized swimming? Seriously now…
Thirdly, some players seem to fit better in that set-up and consequently perform better at international level than what they do at Super level, if you know what I mean? Take Morné Steyn for example – and I suspect that this has a lot to do with Fourie du Preez playing next to him, even though he himself is probably operating at only 60% of his capability. Bryan Habana, Pierre Spies and JP Pietersen are similarly better as Boks than as provincial players, and ultimately if we are to actually go over there and win the RWC this year, the team performance needs to be greater than the sum of the individual performances within it.
Lastly, and this is relevant if you – like me – are concerned that the Springboks are a little bit past their prime and might find that they are unable to keep up with the speed and intensity of the game against pacier outfits like New Zealand and Australia. The All Blacks came on Saturday with a fairly decent attempt at running us off our feet, and failed. Our defensive systems held up enough to put an end to at least 3 line breaks that would’ve resulted in tries against most other opponents, and against a pack of forwards that resemble New Zealand’s starting 8 not so much in personnel but definitely in height and weight, the Springboks were clearly better – so much so that the last 15 minutes of the game virtually degenerated into a bit of a pummelling up front.
Having considered all of this I’m not just yet going to book a flight up to Joburg to welcome the Springboks back from New Zealand with RWC 2011 in the bag, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel: our boring, one-dimensional defence-orientated game plan might not be the “total rugby” we wish it was, but it sure as hell might prove to be an effective way to stop our opponents from successfully implementing their game plans. And now if only the Springboks could figure out a way to score one or two tries a game, I’ll be a happy camper…
A. von Molendorff