Like the first day of school, the weekend’s Rugby World Cup results proved to be an nerve-racking affair. Barring the All Blacks’ 62-13 mauling of the French, every other encounter delivered the gasping moments that had fans encasing their faces in their hands or jumping out of their seats.
While the scoreline of Argentina’s spirited win over Ireland would suggest otherwise, the game itself was as close as they come. The momentum see-saw throughout the game risked everyone’s confidence, regardless of how committed you were to each respective side. That said, the outcome was a fitting end to the titanic battle between the emerging north and south rugby powerhouses. The emotion of the Pumas during their goosebump-inducing national anthem was a testament to the fact that this tournament means more to Argentina than anyone could imagine. The South Americans have arrived and are looking to top their third-place finish achieved eight years ago in France.
As for the focus of the weekend though – the Springboks’ win over Wales. It was a harrowing and somewhat nail-biting experience to witness – one which didn’t invoke too much assurance in the strength of South Africa, even with the final breathtaking Fourie du Preez try.
The Springboks themselves didn’t seem like scoring points was the aim of the gameplan, and instead looked to apply pressure on the Welsh without the ball – a tactic which backfired spectacularly against Japan. An overuse of kicks outside of the 22m line seemed to plague the impulses of Handré Pollard, Willie le Roux, and even the untouchable Fourie du Preez. Kicking to gain some territory and turn the opposition is a viable attacking option at times, but when there’s no one chasing the punt, it’s all in vain.
This is something which may have to change heading into the semi-final clash with the All Blacks. The back-three of New Zealand thrive on those turnover opportunities, and given the form of All Blacks fullback Ben Smith’s brilliance in the air against France, it’s not something South Africa will want to invite Mr. Smith to showcase.
Thankfully, the Springboks did pull a rabbit out of the hat on the stroke of the 74th minute – a move which, while appearing to be off-the-cuff, was a planned move practised by Du Preez and Vermeulen in the week. A tactical joker card implanted by Heyneke Meyer.
While this may seem like the only redeeming factor of the performance, it’s one which the Springboks can be incredibly proud of. Often, the All Blacks – who have become the bar of how to play rugby – have found themselves in tough situations in the dying moments of games, only to unleash a brilliant and deceptive set-piece move to clinch pivotal games. The Springboks had this mentality in the game and saved the moment for when it was needed most.
The defence of the Springboks also has to be commended. A few instances saw the Welsh find space, only to be closed off by the scrambling South African defenders. George North looked to be a likely try-scorer in the opening stage of the game, but Bismarck du Plessis’ last-ditch tackle was able to stop the giant winger just before the line. A defensive effort that was brave, but needs some work ahead of the All Blacks’ Swiss army knife of attacking options.
Many will be pinning Steven Hansen’s men as the favourites come Saturday’s semi-final, which, to be fair, is warranted. Despite five from five wins so far, they haven’t had the most impressive tournament, as the All Blacks never showed their hand until Les Bleus gave a little bit of resistance. The likes of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks were all sublime, and the audacious amount of talent from the All Blacks bench shifted the performance into high-gear – something we haven’t seen from the defending champions so far.
This has got many fans speculating that the New Zealanders are going to punish the underachieving Springboks, but this is unlikely to be the case.
Traditionally, South Africa has always played to the capabilities of their opponents – a trait which is a curse and blessing to the Springboks on most occasions, as they’re able to raise the tempo to compete with anyone they need to.
The French were terrible. With respect to some individuals, the lack of enthusiasm of the team was shocking. Losing their own lineouts, missing tackles, and not even attempting to regain possession from kick-offs, the French looked like they had half a foot out the door from the get-go. The All Blacks were great, but the apathetic French performance made the All Blacks look better than they were.
The Springboks won’t offer that type of open-door to the All Blacks. The defence will be relentless, the attack will be more structured, and the emotion and incentive will be there too, as it has been since 1921 when the two nations collided in a Test match for the first time.
The game will undoubtedly be worthy of a final, with both teams having full belief that they can each respectively win the Webb Ellis cup for the third time. There’s no illusions that the All Blacks have the greater attacking prowess and diverse tactical game, but they have been missing out on the things that help galvanise a team – the battle-hardened growth throughout the tournament, the ability to grind out difficult wins, and the cool temperament that’s been pushed to the limit – and that’s something the Springboks have earned in abundance in the past five weeks.