The atmosphere around the South African rugby community following the Springboks’ 26-28 defeat to the Wallabies on the Gold Coast is one of confusion and frustration. Many argue that a team such as South Africa, with such dominant forwards (further bolstered by the return of Duane Vermeulen) and a powerful backline, should easily have beaten a rather experimental Australian side. However, it’s important to remember that clinical execution of the Springboks’ now (somewhat infamous) gameplan is what makes them dangerous, not the teamsheet alone.
Yes, Handre Pollard may have left 10 kickable points out on the field, ones that were, admittedly, easily within his range and capabilities, but South Africa’s execution in many of the general-play moments needs to be looked at too. The kick-chase, one of SA’s best attacking options, wasn’t put to good use, as the depths of kicks were vastly misjudged and misplaced, leaving little to no opportunity for chasing players to make much of an impact. It needs to be said that the Springboks are often happy for the opposition to retrieve the ball from a kick, but the immense pressure the Boks put on said player the moment he catches the ball is often the precursor to a turnover, or at the very least, a bone-rattling tackle, giving South Africa ascendency even without the ball.
Unlike many other teams around the world, when the Boks have the ball, that seems to be the problem. While Jacques Nienaber’s men have delivered some moments of magic, they’re exactly that: moments. Long-form attacking plays and building momentum through consecutive attacking phases seems not to be something on the Boks’ radar. They’re far more comfortable without the ball, than with it. It is a strategy that has worked throughout the 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign, the British & Irish Lions series, and all the sporadic games up until then. However, some confidence with the ball is needed, and some patience on attack should help the Boks deliver more crowd-pleasing snippets.
For example, two moments stood out: Le Roux throwing an imprecise pass on a spontaneous wrap-around play by Pollard in the opening phases, which caused a knock-on and subsequent turnover. Second moment: Pollard regathering a kick downfield and looking for an offload to Mapimpi, which went into touch and, once again, caused a turnover. It’s very ‘unlike’ the Boks, and not an individual blame-game scenario, but rather a reminder that the Boks do need to have the patience and composure on attack, much like they do on defence and their set-pieces.
Speaking of, as for the good ole South African bread-‘n-butter, it’s still intact. The lineout maul was once again an excellent component of the Boks’ game, delivering a try to Bongi Mbonambi and two for Malcolm Marx. The SA forwards were easily able to get the maul rolling forward, even when the Wallabies anticipated it and didn’t bother to contest the lineout — highlighting exactly how well-produced these elements were.
There’s a lot to be said about the Wallabies too. While they may not have some big names and had yet to take any notable scalp in their time prior to the win over the Springboks during Dave Rennie’s current tenure, there’s something there. Yeah, they may not be putting on the razzle-dazzle show of Australian rugby of yesteryear, but there was something about seeing Quade Cooper back. While the rugby gods may not have touched the shoulder of the South Africans this past weekend, you don’t have a soul if you didn’t enjoy the comeback story — be it on a personal level for Cooper and in a bigger picture for Australian rugby as an entity.