All Blacks just not skilled enough

Men in green battered boys in black in Durban on Saturday in SA’s most emphatic win against the All Blacks in the professional era, writes Keo in his weekly Business Day newspaper column.

Physicality is always a given from the Springboks but when you add common sense, accuracy, intelligence and skill, you get a New Zealand team reduced to rubble. The Springboks were clinical and effective; the All Blacks were clueless. The Springboks were calm; the All Blacks always in a state of chaos.

The New Zealanders still possess the odd world-class player, but to beat the Springboks in SA you need more than one Richie McCaw, and even the great opensider is 50% off his game after spending half the season in the medical tent. There was nothing revolutionary about the dismantling of the All Blacks. SA played as all the very good Bok teams of years gone by have done. They relied on a masterful line-out, solidity at the scrum and two halfbacks whose tactical kicking game is unrivalled.

And New Zealand’s experienced back three, with 150 Test caps between them, could not deal with the accuracy of the kick or the intensity of the chase from Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Jaque Fourie. Even All Blacks centre Conrad Smith, usually unfazed, was flustered.

It was an awful day for the Kiwis, but it was a day made ugly for them by the Springboks. The New Zealanders were more helpless than self-destructive because they did not have the players to implement the territory and risk-free game needed to pressure the Springboks. Instead they relied on individuals and instinct, but the Boks’ collective cohesion was never troubled by this chaotic New Zealand approach.

Individually, the Boks had the better players, and they played with the knowledge that if they kicked the ball out they would win it back through Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith or Pierre Spies. The Boks were always going to score at line-out time while the All Blacks did not have the currency in player personnel to negotiate a cuddle of the ball, let alone ownership for the day.

The All Blacks are effective when they can launch attacks from line-out and strike from quick recycled ball. Against the brutal Boks the former was not an option and the latter was never a weapon. McCaw, for the second successive week, was upstaged by a younger version in Heinrich Brussouw.

The All Blacks, with no guarantee from a structured approach, played with risk in the danger zone, but this was a shambles because there was never any conviction that the risk would reap rewards. There was nothing flamboyant about the Springboks and the romantics may even take issue with the ball never being shifted past Fourie at outside centre, but then romance rarely wins a team big Test matches, and Bok coach Peter de Villiers has finally seen that. SA’s strength has always been in the collisions, but what makes this team so good is the decision- making of Fourie du Preez once that collision has been won. The approach of kick and chase may seem dour or robotic but the combination is a skill as underrated as the ability to maul.

Not having flamboyance, though, does not mean there was anything dull about the Boks’ performance. To watch Matfield and his mates systematically destroy the All Blacks’ desire to even want to have a line-out was riveting. To see Habana clean out McCaw at the ruck was inspiring, and to see fear and confusion in the All Blacks’ eyes was as rare as Tiger Woods missing the cut at a Major.

It doesn’t happen often, yet for two successive weekends in SA the All Blacks were not strong enough, skilled enough or bright enough to negotiate the world champion Springboks, who have given this generation of Kiwi a reminder that the trip across the Tasman for the annual Bledisloe Cup is a charity event when compared with the road to and from the Republic.

Australia will play with more structure and intelligence on Saturday in Cape Town, and they will be a greater challenge, but the Boks, so inspirationally led by John Smit, should not be losing to anyone at home with the line-up that played the All Blacks in Bloemfontein and Durban.

To demand victory from this Springbok team every time they play at home is not arrogance but an acknowledgement of just how good they are when they invest in their strengths, and play accordingly.