Despite the incredible spectacle, the Springboks’ 18-20 loss to the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup semi-final was an underwhelming moment for fans, but Heyneke Meyer and his men will make a spirited comeback against Argentina and thrive in 2016 thanks to the experience earned in the gruelling tournament.
Regarding the semi-final itself, the better team won. Steve Hansen’s troops were able to play a strong territorial game which kept the Springboks in their own half for a majority of the match, and soaked up the pressure when the Springboks’ defence remained resilient. On attack, the Springboks didn’t offer too much. Barring the initial linebreak from Jesse Kriel in the opening minutes, the men in green and gold never looked like scoring a try. This was due to the lack of intent from the Springboks, as well as the fast line speed and effective tackling from the New Zealand forwards and backs.
The Springboks attempted to stick to their strengths – the driving maul and tight structured play – but the set-pieces didn’t hold up, as SA lost four of their own lineouts, while the All Blacks lost none. The scrum area was more solid, however the ball presentation for Fourie du Preez wasn’t as quick and clean as anticipated. The All Blacks managed the throw a giant spanner in the works of the Springboks’ strike weapons – a testament to the preparation and homework done by Steve Hansen.
With all that’s said about the lacklustre attacking performance by the Springboks, they did come within two points of the world champions, and kept the game on a knife-edge until the final whistle. Beating the All Blacks and winning another World Cup is the least South African supporters expect, but there has been major steps forward made by the squad and management team as a collective, and that’s something worth being positive about.
In June this year, Jesse Kriel had never pulled a Springbok match jersey over his head. Fast forward six months and he’s standing opposite All Blacks’ veteran and one of the best centres in the world, Conrad Smith, in a Rugby World Cup semi-final. 19-time-capped Handré Pollard went toe-to-toe with the best flyhalf in the world, and the same can be said about Damien de Allende, who has proven to be not only ready for Test rugby, but one of the most exciting prospects in world rugby at the moment.
While not particularly strong throughout the whole tournament, Springbok fullback Willie le Roux also grew in stature and played a fantastic game against the All Blacks, eliminating the attacking threat of the high-balls directed at him, even when under immense pressure, Le Roux was able to show his defensive qualities as a fullback.
The same goes for Lood de Jager, Frans Malherbe, and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who all played a pivotal role in the Springboks’ RWC campaign, whether it was off the bench or in the starting XV. The Springboks look to have a bright future ahead of them, and these young players who will remain the core of the 2016 group will already have unparalleled experience to bring to the table.
There’s no denying that some things need to change. Heyneke Mayer’s contract has been extended until the next Rugby World Cup, and while the Boks seemed to have played some rather uninspiring rugby in portions of the tournament, there were signs of real ambition in key moments – the games against Samoa and USA come to mind. Yes, some may argue second-rate opposition made the Springboks look better than they were, and to some extent, that may be true. But the attacking intent and purpose was there and when the ball moved through the hands and width was found, the team looked dangerous and clinical.
The trademark traits of powerful forward dominance and brutal defence will always be the pillars of South African rugby, but Heyneke Meyer has to evolve the game plan to showcase counter-attacking play, long-range tries, and risk-taking that the Springboks have demonstrated on some occasions in past two seasons, examples being the last three Ellis Park meetings against the All Blacks. The Springboks can play this type of rugby, they just need to rid themselves of the antiquated crutch that suffocates the enterprising style that many of the young players were reared to play before joining the senior team, which, to be blunt, is what you have to play to beat the best.
The Springboks have a lot to play for when they come up against Argentina on Friday for the third-place play-off. The reward may be out of the game, but a number of Springbok legends will be bowing out of Test rugby with the occasion, and that serves as a great opportunity for the team to end the year and era on a high.
Hopefully Heyneke Meyer can take the Springboks to the next level in 2016, and it won’t just be to the benefit of him and the team themselves, but rather the global rugby-watching audience. New Zealand and Australia are sitting in running-rugby heaven and it’s about time the Springboks join them, because when they do, it’ll be glorious to watch.