Boks’ brains trust lacks ambition

JON CARDINELLI says it’s going to take more than uncompromising physicality and guts to topple the best teams in 2011.

Last week, Peter de Villiers spoke about laying down a marker against the English. De Villiers said the Boks wanted to make a statement that would allow them to win, travel back to South Africa with a three-from-four record, and ultimately enjoy Christmas.

What followed at Twickenham was a great result, and yet the performance and subsequent press conference offerings left you largely underwhelmed. Can anybody in the South African rugby community really enjoy Christmas after such a dire international season?

Yes, the Boks were back to their bruising best at Twickenham, bossing the set-pieces and dominating the collisions with sadomasochistic enthusiasm. Yes, their tactical kicking was better and allowed them to dictate play, and yes, it was a fantastic response filled with courage and resolve after a humiliating defeat to Scotland.

But it wasn’t enough to suggest the Boks are, once again, world beaters.

They smashed England by sticking to a traditional game, a game that requires little imagination and relies on opposition mistakes. It’s a game plan that’s proved flawed in the last 12 months, and a game plan that’s failed to acknowledge the evolution of the sport.

The Boks are still in a pit. They can make it back to ground zero before the 2011 World Cup, but there’s not much to suggest they’ll challenge the teams that embrace a total game. Under current management, ground zero may be their ceiling.

They finished the 2009 Tri-Nations at the zenith of world rugby, but the end-of-year tour marked the start of a decline. The physical hammering they endured in Toulouse and Dublin was replicated in the 2010 Tri-Nations. The Boks failed to adapt to the new law interpretations and adjust their tactics accordingly, and they paid a terrible price.

Whenever they’re met head on in the physical stakes, no amount of guts, pride or any other intangible can guarantee a win. The Bok were manhandled in Auckland, Wellington and Brisbane. They countered the All Blacks well in Soweto, but didn’t have the necessary class or variation to hurt their opponents where it mattered.

In each case, the opposition was better on the day, but it’s become a simple formula that seems to have no counter. If you can beat the Boks up physically, you’re likely to pick up a win.

England couldn’t produce the grit required to unsettle the Boks last Saturday, and so the visitors’ approach proved successful. Victor Matfield said in the aftermath that the performance proved that the Boks don’t need to copy other teams. It was a frightening admission of what is a lack of ambition within the South African set-up.

Peter de Villiers will survive the axe despite the abomination against Scotland, but there is a move to install a technical committee that will assist with rugby decisions. While the Boks’ kick-chase approach does still have value, the team needs to recognise the need for alternative strategies, and select players capable of switching between styles.

The All Blacks have been hailed for their running game in 2010, when in truth they have struck a balance between the conservative and attacking. They kicked more than any other team in the Tri-Nations, and they also finished with the best try-scoring stats.

They were aggressive in the forward exchanges, and took that dominance on their successful Grand Slam tour. They’re playing a total game, one that every team should be looking to replicate.

Unfortunately, the Boks are running out of time to get their house in order. De Villiers blew a series of opportunities on this tour, neglecting to trust Pat Lambie in a starting flyhalf capacity. Lambie displayed his tactical versatility in the Sharks’ successful Currie Cup campaign, and deserved an extended chance to ignite the Bok backline.

He’ll have very few opportunities in 2011. The Boks play four Tri-Nations Tests, two of which will exclude the frontline players as they rest up before the World Cup. It’s a shame that there hasn’t been the foresight to play Lambie behind the strongest Bok pack, and develop a game plan that allows for variation. Twickenham was a triumph in isolation, and shouldn’t hide the fact that the Boks are a limited force that refuses to evolve.

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