Struggling for a silver lining

JON CARDINELLI writes that although the Boks scored 13 tries in this year’s Tri-Nations that attacking success needs to be viewed in perspective.

Defence has been identified as the biggest pitfall in a botched campaign. The Boks finished their worst ever Tri-Nations with the most porous record in the tournament’s history. They leaked 22 tries and conceded the four-try bonus in four of their six matches.

Some have pointed to the attacking displays in Pretoria and Bloemfontein as one reason to feel encouraged. They argue that those fixtures, where the Boks scored eight tries in total, were outstanding examples of how rugby should be played.

They ignore the fact that the Wallabies came to South Africa with a largely inexperienced group, and that over the course of two matches were as diabolical on defence as their hosts.

The stats confirm the fact. The Boks missed 29 tackles and the Wallabies 33. The Boks were allowed to make 19 linebreaks while the Wallabies cut the opposition on 18 occasions.

If people enjoy that kind of rugby, they should push for a new law that limits defence. Both Tests were dramatic, but won’t go down as two of the classics. The players have expressed their regret for multiple errors, and while the Boks have to improve their defence, they also need to sharpen their attack.

Put those two freakish Tests aside, and the Boks’ attacking record reads five tries in four matches. When South Africa came up against a solid defensive line in this year’s Tri-Nations, they struggled.

The Wallabies will finish second in this year’s Tri-Nations, but it will be a distant second to the trend-setting All Blacks. Graham Henry’s side has been the best attacking unit, and have also set the standard on defence. They’ve conceded just seven tries in five games, and are yet to allow the opposition a four-try bonus point.

The All Blacks’ superior and belligerent approach to the breakdown blunted the Bok attack in New Zealand, and even though South Africa brought more intensity to the fixture at Soccer City, they still weren’t as accurate as their Kiwi counterparts. An overall lack of intensity and accuracy has stifled the Bok attack in 2010.

Selections also contributed to an underwhelming attacking performance. Picking Jean de Villiers on the wing in New Zealand limited the midfield’s attacking options, while sticking with an out-of-form Bryan Habana did the team no favours. Gio Aplon showed some spark, and should have featured in all three home Tests.

While there’s no replacing the all-round brilliance of Fourie du Preez, Francois Hougaard proved himself as a useful alternative. The Boks looked better with De Villiers and Fourie together in midfield, but Morne Steyn isn’t the answer at No 10. He kicked flawlessly at goal on the home leg, but the Boks need a flyhalf who can attack with purpose.

The defection of Ruan Pienaar to Ireland is unfortunate, as is Butch James’s serious shoulder injury (James was supposed to start in Bloemfontein). These are two players who can lend the Boks some purpose from the pivot position. If Morne Steyn continues at 10, the Boks will perpetually fail to threaten an organised defence.

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