JON CARDINELLI watched the Springboks deliver an uninspiring yet determined performance to beat the All Blacks 18-5 in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The desperation was tangible from minute one. The Boks had come into this fixture with the intention to spoil and smother, to secure their first victory since November 2010. More importantly, they had arrived at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium determined to snatch a morale-boosting result on the eve of the World Cup.
It was this desperation that rendered all else insignificant. There was no sign of innovation or precision as the hosts bashed away at the opposition using the 2009 template of subdue and conquer.
Indeed it was a strategy that was not perfectly implemented, and it was all the Boks could do to hold on during the early stages. The All Blacks ran the ball from everywhere, avoiding the grinding contest at the coalface and attempting to stretch the home defence with a high-tempo, explosive approach. If not for some timely cover tackling by the Boks, the All Blacks may have scored a couple of tries inside the opening quarter.
Jaque Fourie was instrumental to the Boks’ defensive success, and the Stormers’ highly effective pattern was apparent. At times it appeared as if the Stormers were playing the Blues, such was the one-sided defensive approach of the Boks and the explosive but disjointed style of the All Blacks.
The Boks will covet this result, but the quality of performance underlined existing concerns. They offered little on attack and their defence wasn’t flawless. Some terrific scrambling by Fourie and Bryan Habana denied the All Blacks, but missed first-time tackles once again placed the Boks under unnecessary pressure.
Fourie du Preez had a poor game by his own high standards, as those high tactical hoists were rarely accurate and afforded the All Blacks’ back three multiple counter-attacking opportunities. Fortunately for the hosts, this second-rate All Blacks side failed to punish the Boks’ errors. Even though they broke the line on numerous occasions, their poor decision making in the tackle led to momentum-killing turnovers.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry said earlier in that week that he was hoping that these fringe players would make a statement against a strong South African side. He would have been disappointed,
Colin Slade buckled under the pressure, miscuing several tactical kicks and fluffing two shots at goal. He didn’t exude the same presence as Dan Carter in that crucial flyhalf position.
Neither the Boks nor the All Blacks will win the World Cup on the basis of this performance, but then the majority of this All Blacks side won’t feature in the big games. Come the World Cup, Carter, Richie McCaw and the rest of the first-choice players will return. With the exception Schalk Burger, and the reinstatement of Butch James as the starting No 10, this Bok side can’t get any stronger.
Morne Steyn kept the Boks in front with a flawless kicking display, slotting four penalties and a drop goal in the first half. The drop goal ensured the Boks extended their lead, but was another example of the Boks’ desire to win at all costs. The Bok attack struggled to pressure the All Blacks and Steyn failed to get his outside backs away.
There were a few, however, who impressed on attack. Bismarck du Plessis showed yet again why he should start at the World Cup. The Bok scrum stood up to the much fancied Kiwis, while Du Plessis’ powerful carries gave the hosts plenty of impetus.
As a collective, the Boks were inconsistent on attack, and a defensive lapse led to an All Blacks try right before half-time. Richard Kahui sliced through the Bok backline and stepped around JP Pietersen to score. The Bok cover defence so nearly denied Kahui, but it would have been another example of desperation rather than a victory for a superior defensive system.
Habana denied Jimmy Cowan in this manner early in the second half, and this allowed the Boks to progress past the crucial period after half-time without conceding points. From there, it was more kicking for territory, squeezing the All Blacks and feeding off their opponents’ mistakes.
The All Blacks would have gained something positive from this hit-out, as several players got an opportunity to play after returning from serious injury. Slade’s performance, however, will worry Henry and confirm that the All Blacks still have no quality alternative to Carter.
The Boks may have obtained the desired result, but should also be worried. They’ve added nothing to their attacking game, a fact confirmed by their failure to score a try for the second game in succession.
Steyn kicked all 18 of their points, but they will need to present more of a try-scoring threat if they are going to challenge a full-strength New Zealand and Australia at the World Cup. They will now look to improve during the pool stages of the global tournament itself, but there’s been little to suggest they will move away from a predominantly defensive mindset.