Questions abound as Boks lose in Perth

10 September 2012

A first defeat for the Springboks under Heynecke Meyer felt inevitable after three iffy performances in succession, but it was nonetheless disappointing as the Boks gave up a halftime lead before going down 26-19 to the Wallabies in a Castle Rugby Championship match in Perth on Saturday.

It’s not often that a team manages to come back from 10 points down as the Australians did to beat South Africa, so hats off to them, but the fact that they did that is what makes it so disappointing from a South African perspective, along with the manner in which the Boks played the game.

Game plan

By sticking to a game plan that brought the Bulls three Super Rugby titles, Meyer’s Springboks have found it far harder to break down the opposition at international level. The tactical kicking game that was previously spearheaded by scrumhalf Fourie du Preez now looks old and tired, and it appears that the Bok backline has little to offer in the way of innovation and excitement.

It didn’t really work for the Bulls in this year’s Super Rugby competition; they finished sixth on the log and were beaten in their first playoff game. The Stormers topped the log with a defensive-minded approach, but they never once earned a bonus point for scoring four tries in a game and that defensive approach it was found wanting by the Sharks in the playoffs.

The most inventive and attacking of the South African franchises, the Sharks made it to the final. Their style of play, more integrated than that of the other South African franchises, matched up best to the challenge of Australian and New Zealand opposition when the chips were down.

Where they stood out most was in their ability to offload in the tackle and keep attacking movements alive. It’s something that has been relatively scarce in the Springboks’ approach.

Playing within themselves

It seems, in many ways, that a clash of styles, brought from the various franchises, is limiting the Boks. They’re playing within themselves and the result is that some established international players who shone in the Super Rugby tournament now appear to be mere shadows of themselves.

In Meyer’s six tests in charge of the Springboks, it should be remembered that the South Africa team looked at its best in the first half of the team’s 36-27 victory over England in the second test in Johannesburg in June. In that first half, the basics were performed well. They played well with the ball in hand, aiming to get it wide, and were rewarded. So, the question is: why has the ambition of the Springboks’ play receded so much since then, or appeared to do so?

One of the scapegoats for South Africa’s poor performances has been flyhalf Morne Steyn, especially as his goal kicking has been below his usually immaculate standard. He offers less than Patrick Lambie on the attack, with Lambie good at taking the ball flat, while rising star Johan Goosen is as talented a player as anyone in the game, but he has only recently returned from a long injury layoff.

Patrick Lambie

If one is to criticise Meyer, Lambie is an ideal example to do so. He stood out at fullback on the biggest stage of all in 2011, the Rugby World Cup. However, he was played at flyhalf early in the year by the Sharks before being moved back to fullback. Meyer, though, has opted for the steady, but unspectacular Bulls’ number 15, Zane Kirchner, ahead of the undoubtedly more talented Lambie.

While Kirchner has not let the Boks down, his ceiling is much lower than that of Lambie, who came off the bench for the first time in three games on Saturday. To match up to teams like the world champion All Blacks, who are South Africa’s next opponents by the way, the Springboks need their most talented players on the park.

A man like Kirchner won’t let the team down, but he is not a potential difference maker and match winner like Lambie is. And that is what is needed against the best opposition. When Goosen is fit, let him loose at flyhalf.

Ball winner

Also, with Bismarck du Plessis sidelined after being injured against Argentina in Cape Town, the Springboks lost a valuable ball winner in the loose, and the decision to go for a very big loose trio in Perth, without including a true ball winner, proved questionable. Australia’s Michael Hooper, the smallest loose forward on the field in Perth, effected four turnovers.

Is it time to recall Heinrich Brussouw? In 2011, before being injured, he was lauded for his influence on the game. Now he is on the outside looking in. This much is true: he looked very good for the Cheetahs in their narrow loss to Western Province on the weekend.

And another question about the Springboks’ loose forwards: was Keegan Daniel let go too soon? Yes, he is smaller than the South African ideal of what a flanker or eighthman should look like, but his skills are unmatched among loose forwards in the country. He is one of the reasons why the Sharks are able to play such a good and effective counter-attacking style of rugby.

Attacking approach

In Perth, the Boks’ only try began with a high-up-and-under, which was won by Kirchner, thanks really to the bounce of the ball. Springbok fans want to see more than that.

They want to see the ball run, especially as South African conditions are so conducive to it. They want to see the physicality of the players used not only to try and run over the opposition, but also around them, or to slice through them.

Granted, test rugby is a different animal, more tightly contested than any other games, but isn’t that where subtle skills make all the difference? Shouldn’t we believe the Springboks are capable of more than they’re showing?

A good all-round game

The best rugby they have played in recent times came during the 2007 Rugby World Cup; they combined an uncompromising defence with razor-sharp counter-attacking. They did the basics well and the general at number 10 was not a kicking flyhalf, but Butch James, a man with a good all-round game. There must be a lesson to be learnt from that.

Lots of questions, I know, but that’s where the Springboks’ performances leave us, the fans, at present – with more questions than answers.

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