The Springboks need to persist with what’s proved a winning strategy if they are to win their third Tri-Nations title.
In 2008, a very similar Bok side were undone by an approach devoid of structure and direction. Despite going into that tournament as favourites, the Boks were undone by the coaching staff’s tactical naivety.
After three Tests in the 2009 installment, it’s clear Peter de Villiers, Gary Gold and Dick Muir have learned from those mistakes. They’ve favoured a game plan that amplifies the Boks’ traditional strengths and, surprise, surprise, the Australasians have had no answer.
At the halfway stage of this year’s competition, the Boks top the log. They possess the most accurate tactical kickers and the best fetcher in Heinrich Brussow. Their clinical approach at the breakdown has been a revelation. It shouldn’t surprise that they top the log given that dominance in the modern game requires dominance in these two areas. The Boks deserve pole position and, judging by what the Antipodeans have produced, the Boks deserve to win the Tri-Nations.
Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn have been accurate in their probes for touch, but their in-field kicking has been particularly effective. Credit must go to the Bok kick-chase, as this has applied the kind of pressure needed to keep the opposition on the back foot. The chasers have limited the kick receptor’s space and in many cases have forced the ball receiver into an error.
This particular approach has been criticised and some have even gone so far as to label this brand ‘boring’. Critics, however, need to realise the alternative is just not an option.
There’s no such thing as expansive rugby in the modern Test game. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. You can run it wide from your own half, but you’re not going to win Tests in doing so. The new laws prescribe that you kick for territory and play your running rugby in the opposition half.
Last Saturday, Australia took it wide on numerous occasions and were easily shut down by the Bok defence. They tried to run themselves out of trouble from inside their own half and paid the price time and again.
That the Boks have only scored four tries in three games should not be a major concern. They’ve won all three Tests comfortably and it could be argued they should have won by more, but bonus points are not going to decide the outcome of this year’s Tri-Nations.
The Boks’ have consistently turned pressure into points. The ferocious yet clinical breakdown effort has frustrated both New Zealand and Australian forwards as they’ve struggled to deal with the pressure. They’ve conceded numerous penalties, infringements that have halted the Bok momentum when a try seemed imminent. Australian flanker George Smith was yellow-carded for one such transgression last week when he cynically knocked the ball from Du Preez’s hands. It was just one example of the Boks receiving a penalty for the opposition culling a potential try-scoring movement.
The Boks are on the verge of a great achievement, but they are by no means at their peak. It’s true the game plan has been effective and it’s true they have started to exhibit the calm and confidence typical of top sports teams. But the real truth is they could be better.
By applying pressure, they’re creating opportunities and it’s a shame not more of those chances were taken last Saturday. If a few of those clever offloads had gone to hand, the Boks may have reached 40 or 50 points at Newlands.
They’ve created a formidable base from which to to work, but in the build up to their first away fixture, they should be looking to improve their execution. As vulnerable as they are, both the Wallabies and All Blacks will be tougher to beat Down Under, and opportunities may not be as plentiful as they’ve been in the past three weeks.
The Boks went into this year’s Tri-Nations as favourites, and as long as they continue to strive for excellence from within the set structures, they should realise their goal.
By Jon Cardinelli