Burying the Blacks

The Springboks will put New Zealand away by 20 or more points if they refine certain facets of their play, most notably their goal kicking.

This is not meant as disrespect to a country with a legacy of excellence, but they’re in a state of flux, and are decidedly vulnerable.

The defeat in Bloemfontein wasn’t unpredictable and neither was it unexpected, and predicting a greater victory margin in Durban shouldn’t be viewed as disrespectful or arrogant.

But for poor decision-making by Berrick Barnes, the All Blacks should have lost to Australia in their Tri-Nations opener in Auckland, and for most of the Test in Bloemfontein they looked no more than ordinary, devoid of the aura and clinical edge we’ve associated with Blacks’ sides in recent history.

Extending the analyses further back, they were outplayed by France – who themselves are in a transition period – in Dunedin in June, stuttered over the line against them the following week in Wellington, and were unconvincing in their victory over Italy thereafter.

At present, playing to somewhere close to the ceiling of their potential, the Springboks are at least 20 points better than the Blacks. But that will mean nothing if they revert to the rudderless approach that twice cost them victory against Graham Henry’s charges in 2008.

Tactically they were superb against the Blacks in Bloemfontein, and the Springbok coaching staff must be commended in this regard. They’ve discovered, not without some growing pains, a formula that suits the strengths of their players without compromising too much on their ambition to play an exciting brand of rugby.

When executed accurately, it’s a formidable hybrid of forward power, tactical kicking, and backline attack, and a hybrid that is very difficult to counter – the Blacks’ coaching staff and the New Zealand media have conceded this.

They’ve struggled when sides adopt a pragmatic approach against them, like France and Australia did. And pragmatism must be the objective again at King’s Park once more.

It’s one thing knowing what’s coming, but another countering it. New Zealand will be bracing for a similar approach from the Springboks, but this must not deter them. Tyson, in his prime, didn’t revert to a more measured, patient style because his opponents were expecting him to try and knock them out in the first couple of rounds, and likewise, neither did Australia batsmen Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, when operating at the peak of their powers, temper their aggressive approach when teams set defensive fields or bowled negative lines.

These men stuck to the formula that brought them success, and forced the opposition to make drastic changes to their preferred avenue of attack. The Springboks need to follow suit, and resist the urge to run the Blacks ragged, even if they believe they are on the ropes. A couple of well placed body blows are needed, not a flurry of hopeful punches to the head.

Their ability to refine aspects of their successful game plan must now be the focus, and Ruan Pienaar’s goal kicking should be a primary concern.

Had he sunk all of his five kicks, all of which were relatively easy by any standards, the Springboks’ task would have been infinitely easier. In discussions with Pienaar’s team-mates over the course of the past six months, it has become clear that he relies heavily on a good start to a Test to set the tone for his performance. He is, they say, obsessive about excellence, and when he falls below his personal standards he tends to capitulate mentally.

The senior players need to draw closer to him, as must kicking coach Percy Montgomery, who has experienced purple patches with the boot, as well as nightmare runs, and has dealt with both excellently.

The scrums were solid without being dominant and that will be a facet of play to address, while their reversion to an expansive, cavalier approach for 15 minutes in the second half, in which time the Blacks dragged themselves off the canvas, is easily dealt with by a constant reminder from the leadership core of the team to stick to the pre-determined game plan.

The All Blacks will be pleased to come away with one win in two, and the Springboks simply cannot allow them to achieve that objective. The Wallabies will pose a bigger threat in a fortnight, making victory on Saturday crucial.

Taking points off New Zealand and Australia in the next two weeks will leave the Springboks with the likely scenario of having to win just one of their three Tests on tour, two of those in Australia, where they have a better record than they do in New Zealand.

It’s perhaps premature to start speaking of winning the title, but their tactically intelligent performance on Saturday was hugely encouraging, and if they can replicate and refine that performance in the coming weeks, the Springboks will be very hard to stop.

By Ryan Vrede, in Durban