RYAN VREDE writes the All Blacks exhibited the defensive blueprint from which to work in order to nullify Australia.
The Blacks are famed for their attacking prowess but in Auckland on Saturday they were excellent defensively, their victory being built on a supreme contest at the collisions. They blunted the Wallabies’ key strike runners and in so doing were able to place immense pressure on their attacking fulcrums – Will Genia and Quade Cooper. Neither responded well to the examination, but Cooper in particular showed he still has a way to go in his development as a flyhalf.
Certainly the 23-year-old has evolved into a formidable opponent under the tutelage of Reds head coach Ewen McKenzie. He was central to the Brisbane franchise’s charge to the Super Rugby title, blending the panache and razzle-dazzle he has built his reputation on, with pragmatism when the opposition and/or match situation demanded it.
Cooper was influential when they faced the Springboks in Sydney three weeks ago, crafting three of the Wallabies’ five tries, and failure to keep him in check in Durban is tantamount to failure. However, he capitulated under the heat applied by the Blacks, and therein lies lessons for the Springboks.
The Blacks were particularly good in defending the channel inside Cooper. It has become somewhat of a trademark of his to drift on attack in order to create gaps in the defensive line, then pick up strike runners on his inside shoulder. The New Zealanders also compromised the quality of Coopers’ tactical kicks by consistently cutting down his space and time. By the end of the third quarter Cooper appeared to have descended into a blundering mess, with his impetuous alter-ego surfacing and manifesting itself in ill-advised cavalier play deep in his territory. The Springboks will be hoping to elicit that beast once more.
However, it would be remiss to overlook their efforts in diluting the potency of the back three. At the heart of that strategy was a refusal to feed them with broken field opportunities through aimless kicks. This rendered James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane virtual spectators for the bulk of the contest. Ioane did score, but that was birthed from a rare occasion the Blacks failed to protect the ball at the breakdown. It was a stark reminder of the Wallabies’ threat from turnover ball.
The Springboks are unlikely to veer from their kick-chase approach. With Fourie du Preez reinstated at scrumhalf, the Springboks gain an expert box and tactical kicker, who has been at the heart of the strategy’s success in the past. Flyhalf Butch James and fullback Frans Steyn will be asked to launch bombs as well, and the accuracy with which they do this, combined with the commitment and structure of the chasing line and domination at the tackle point, will shape the result. The Wallabies will be merciless if their appetite for counter-attacking play is fed through inaccurate kicks and slipped hits.
On Tuesday the Springboks announced Jacques Nienaber as their defensive coach until the end of the World Cup. Nienaber was credited for the Stormers’ granitic defence in their Super Rugby campaign and this bodes well for the Springboks ahead of the global showpiece. However, getting the systems and structures ingrained in the players’ minds will be his most pressing assignment. They then have to execute accurately for 80 minutes.
There is no question he would have reviewed the Blacks’ defensive showing in Auckland. Now he has to hope the Springboks are able to replicate that in Durban this weekend.