Context is the cornerstone of elite sport. There must be a purpose for tens of thousands of people to crowd into a stadium to watch millionaires they’ve never met kick and chase and throw a ball. Oh sure, it’s a lot of fun, and escapism is certainly alluring, but there’s a reason we separate ‘friendly matches’ from competitions that matter.
South Africa beat Wales in Cape Town to win the three-Test series and ensure that at least one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three triumphs against their northern rivals. That in itself provides some context to the case. There is enough scaffolding to cover a narrative. A 30-14 victory. A streak win. National pride. The Bokke do it for the country.
But we know that these mid-year tests are seen as part of a bigger picture. Of course, Ireland’s historic achievement in New Zealand is worthy of great admiration in its own right, and the slugfest between Australia and England was engrossing without any tangential subplots. But with the next World Cup just over a year away, it’s understandable that we’re looking at these matches through the lens of the world showpiece in France.
So what lessons have we learned? What have we learned from South Africa’s stuttering but seemingly inevitable success?
South Africa need a plan B in attack
There was a moment during the first half of the Third Test when South Africa beat the Welsh line. Jaden Henrikse would collect the ball at the base of the ruck, fizzle it to a green monster and move five yards to the next ruck to do it all over again. And even. And even. And even.
Each carry moved the ball a few centimeters forward. It was progress. But it was slow. And although Handre Pollard would end up scoring with his own carry, it all seemed a bit laborious.
Pragmatists will say that the end justifies the means. A try is five points, whether scored from the back of a rolling maul or through an 80-yard counterattack involving half the team.
It was, however, frustrating to see a team with creative and skillful full-backs, not to mention a handful of forwards capable of expanding beyond a one-dimensional approach, turning into crude blunt objects. That the try was marked by the team’s flyhalf acting like a battering ram was indicative of a one-dimensional philosophy.
A new approach is needed. Not just for thrills, but to shift the focus when Plan A meets stubborn resistance. They have the staff to move the ball at pace, to bring their dynamic runners into the game from unexpected angles, to play against the tide and probe into wide channels.
Cheslin Kolbe’s injury is concerning. Too often the Springboks have relied on a piece of individual brilliance from the hot-stepper. Fitness is a finicky concept and it may not be there for every tough game. If that were the case, South Africa wishes it had cultivated an alternative mode of attack.
Flyhalf remains a major concern
It was painful to see Elton Jantjies having a nightmare in the first Test of the series. A polarizing figure on the pitch, the former Lions fly-half is one of the most enterprising playmakers in the world when fit.
Sadly, those games are rare and his stink in Pretoria could well be his last for the Springboks. At least it would be if South Africa had greater depth in this crucial position.
Handre Pollard’s grip on the No.10 jersey has tightened. Not because he turned off the lights in the two games he started, but because no one else is a ready-made assistant.
Manie Libbok, Chris Smith and Curwin Bosch impressed at the United Rugby Championship, but they have obviously yet to earn the trust of Jacques Nienaber and his coaching staff. Damien Willemse stepped into the void once Jantjies latched on at half-time in the opener and played admirably.
Nienaber, however, compared the versatile Willemse to Francois Steyn, revealing his intentions for the 24-year-old. Willemse is certainly capable of dictating a game at 10, but starting him at 15 or off the bench gives the Springboks coach greater flexibility, as well as the ability to select six strikers from his Bomb Squad replacements .
This means that, more than any other player on the team, Pollard’s fitness and form are of the utmost importance. There are strong reasons to believe that he is the most valuable player for his team’s cause in world rugby.
The depth is not as strong as one would like to believe (which is good)
Despite the uncapped six-man roster and a series of changes to the squad that beat the first Test, many South African pundits and bettors expected the Springboks to snatch the second. Few predicted it would be a blunder, but given the depth of South African rugby and the positivity emanating from an all-South African affair in the URC final, there was a well-founded belief that the South African second strings would dismiss the Welsh.
This was not to be the case. Not just because of Gareth Anscombe’s belated heroism, but because the Springboks failed to capitalize on their territorial dominance and were unable to build a threatening movement.
Their defeat, their first-ever on Welsh soil, provoked the expected histrionics and lamentations from fans who believe in the pre-established supremacy of their beloved Springboks.
But here’s the thing. This setback was positive for South African rugby. Not only has the bloody nose instilled some much-needed humility into the organisation, but it has also underlined the theory that there is a gargantuan advance from franchise rugby to elite Test level. This learning experience can only develop players on the fringes. The entire ecosystem is better off.
The Springboks know how to win when it counts
This last lesson is the one we all know now. When the Springboks need to win a game, when the game context is high, they find a way. They won’t win any neutrals by doing it their way. In fact, they might turn a few sitting on the fence against them. But when a series is at stake, when there is danger in the next outing or scrum, the Springboks find a way.
Winning is a habit. Do it enough and you become addicted. It becomes addictive. You need it. You would do anything to get your fix. The Springboks are addicted to triumph. They can’t get enough.
They’ll play a brand that critics might call boring, they’ll attend press conferences and talk about why the world is against them, they’ll espouse a calling bigger than themselves that stretches across borders and reaches the slums of the country. They can even edit an hour-long video highlighting a referee’s mistakes.
All of this is done to win rugby matches. To raise titles. To claim the series. They did it again. And as they head into the Rugby Championship and begin to build their World Cup title defence, they will take heart in the knowledge that they have succeeded again when it mattered. Forget the context. That’s what really matters.
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