The Springboks have had a rather lacklustre season in 2015. While the team managed to push both the All Blacks and Wallabies – undoubtedly the two best sides in the world – to their limits, there has been a lack of clinical execution and finishing, both on attack and defence, which has hampered Heyneke Meyer and his troops from achieving greater things.
The reason for this sentiment is that, to be blunt, the South African public, and world rugby community, expect more from the Springboks. Whether or not, many would agree that this particular Springbok side is teetering on the brink of brilliance. Fragments of exciting running rugby, try-scoring prowess, and jaw-dropping skill have made their appearances over the past three years, particularly against the All Blacks in past Ellis Park meetings, but these moments and too few and far between in recent times.
Some detractors may believe that South African rugby has never showcased the attacking intent likened to that of their Southern Hemisphere neighbours, and potentially never will, but it’s clear that the Springboks are capable of such feats. Just thinking back to the highly-competitive encounters in Ellis Park in both 2013, 2014, and 2015 during the Rugby Championships, it’s clear that the Springboks have what it takes to defeat the All Blacks – and not simply by relying on lineout mauls and penalties, but with attractive running rugby.
These positive results and exciting moments, contrasted with the conservative foundations of ‘expected’ Springbok rugby, has created almost a Jekyll and Hyde scenario with the current South African side – where from one weekend to another, you could very well see the sullen, gritty, and admittedly ugly game plan or the ambitious, exhilarating, and expansive spectacle – but it all seems to depend on which team is on the other side of the halfway line.
For the past couple years, the Springboks have found themselves picking up the knack of playing to the quality of their opposition. Against second-tier nations and northern hemisphere opposition, the Springboks stick to their strengths. Strong set-pieces, a territorial kicking game, and a strong defensive effort has usually got the Springboks on the right side of the scoreboard. When the rival is that of the All Blacks or Wallabies, the Springboks tend to come out of their shells and deliver the Australasians a bit of their own medicine.
Since the inception of the Rugby Championship in 2012, South Africa has scored 14 tries against New Zealand. New Zealand have scored 22 against the Springboks. That’s a difference of 8 tries in three years over 7 games; so, on average, when playing against one another, the All Blacks score one try more than the Springboks per game. While statistics are only half the story, there are merits to these measurements.
When looking at the World Cup semi-final between the Springboks and All Blacks, it’s easy for South African supporters to be frustrated at the 18-20 scoreline, but the gap between the two teams is really as small as two points. The absence of errors from both sides was so evident that we had to wait 25 minutes for the first scrum. The heavy rain did cause some lapses in the second half, but the ability of both sets of players to retain their accuracy despite the intensity of the pressure was a stark reminder that the Southern Hemisphere giants have skillsets higher than that of the rest of the world.
New Zealand’s discipline was surprisingly poor, conceding six penalties in the first quarter alone, three of which were converted by Handré Pollard to give the Springboks an early 9-7 lead despite waves of pressure from the All Blacks. The high concession was in part due to the excellence of Francois Louw and Schalk Burger at the breakdown but it was also self-inflicted.
South Africa’s aerial game was more effective than their opponents. Springboks full-back Willie Le Roux had been braced for a high-ball barrage and it duly came, with Aaron Smith and Dan Carter targeting him. But the 26-year-old was simply superb in the contest for the ball in the air. In contrast it was South Africa who profited more from the tactic, with Bryan Habana twice claiming high balls from Nehe Milner-Skudder.
That’s not to say South Africa was on-par. While they did outshine the All Blacks in many areas, the Springboks were undone at times by poor execution of their exit strategy, with a few players guilty of some misplaced clearance kicks which allowed the All Blacks to run the ball back to maintain the pressure, along with some missed try-scoring opportunities. These are problems that have plagued the Springboks for years, and ones which they need to rectify in 2016.
With these faults, it’s still a subtle but noticeable gap between the undeniable brilliance of the All Blacks and Springboks, and a gap big enough to deprive you of a World Cup trophy or Rugby Championship silverware. The All Blacks have a superior physiological strength and physical conditioning, giving them the ability to turn a 5 point deficit into a winning margin within 10 minutes left in the game. While clichéd, it’s as the All Blacks always say: they try to not think about outcome.
The Springboks don’t need a new team, fresh players, new ideas, and clever tricks – that’s all in the arsenal of the current squad. What they require is the confidence to use them and the mental fortitude and perseverance to survive an onslaught when their backs are against the wall.
If those integral cognitive pieces of the puzzle click into place, Springbok fans should be in for something special come 2016.