Building for the big time

The Springboks need to complete a 3-0 drubbing of the Lions and ride the momentum of a polished performance into the Tri-Nations.

Last Saturday was about the bottom line. The final score read 28-25 and the win secured a series victory over Ian McGeechan’s Lions. For 12 years the Boks will boast bragging rights. Finally, we can move on from the disappointment of 1997, and finally we can get back to the rugby that matters.

The majority of John Smit’s Boks have now captured a World Cup and a Lions series win which is certainly nothing to sneer at. But in claiming the undisputed title of world’s best, the Boks need to capture the crown of the world’s toughest annual competition, the Tri-Nations.

Now that the Lions series is no longer a contest, the Boks should turn their attention to this tournament, a tournament they should have won in 2008. This is not to say they should rest players or take their foot off their accelerator. On the contrary, they need to use the final Lions Test at Ellis Park as a springboard to success in the Tri-Nations.

Nobody can take the recent win away from Smit’s men, but they will know in their heart of hearts they never played to their potential. The Boks disposed of the limited Lions without getting out of third gear, and this is more an indictment on the tourists than a tribute to any Bok brilliance.

Ruan Pienaar was inconsistent on the 2008 end-of-year tour, delivering a solid showing against Wales, a poor performance against Scotland, and a wonderful display against England. He’s been inconsistent in the two 2009 Tests thus far, a controlled showing in Durban followed up by an errant outing in Pretoria.

Granted, his pack was under plenty of pressure at the breakdown, but Pienaar’s decision-making under pressure should be a major concern. Morne Steyn was not only more accurate when he took the field in the final quarter, he was also more composed. His calming influence helped a backline desperate for leadership, and his accurate boot helped put his forwards on the front foot.

It’s early days, but Steyn looks to be the man for the future. Neither Pienaar nor Steyn have been tested against the Australasians in the Tri-Nations. This should reveal their aptitude for Test rugby in the most important position on the park.

While the lineouts were solid and the scrumming exceeded expectations, the breakdown display was disappointing. The Boks will need to improve at the tackle point before meeting the All Blacks and Wallabies, teams that excel in this area.

The last time the Boks played anywhere near their potential was when they smashed England at Twickenham. They played the smart, territorial-based game, a game that also allowed them to pump the Aussies at Ellis Park.

Last Saturday, the Boks tried to play too much rugby from their own half and the poor decision-making made matters worse. Too many times they were turned over when a player ran when he should have kicked. They have the 2-0 win, and fans will be baying for a whitewash, but it’s also important that they right these wrongs before fronting better opposition.

New Zealand and Australia have enjoyed modest starts to the Test season, but they too will be better by the time the Tri-Nations starts in three weeks. Both the Bok players and coaching staff have plenty to do to ensure they don’t waste another opportunity.

Peter de Villiers, Gary Gold and Dick Muir made some big blunders in 2008, both in terms of selection and game plan. The trio made a blunder with their substitutions in the first Test against the Lions and nearly cost the Boks the game. Have they learned from these mistakes? This Saturday should provide the first part of the answer.

Some may believe the season is already a success because of the recent win, but success in the tournament that matters defines success overall. The Boks have failed to obtain the desired momentum in the first two Tests, and so the final game at Ellis Park is the final opportunity to gain some synergy ahead of the Tri-Nations.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg