RYAN VREDE writes that Warren Gatland makes a valid but not new point when he says the Springboks ‘don’t play’. The key to their success has and will hinge on the ability to set a platform for and the precise execution of their pragmatic approach.
Gatland was alluding to the Springboks’ aerial assault and pressing kick-chase, which primarily seeks to force the receiver to turnover possession or retain it illegally, thereby granting their goalkicker opportunities to steadily build their tally.
Indeed it is the way South Africa won their last Test against the Dragons, with Morne Steyn, who will start at flyhalf in Wellington on Sunday, kicking five penalties in a 29-25 victory where the Springboks were outscored three tries to two.
Previously, Ruan Pienaar booted them to victory, banking four penalties in the June 2010 Test where each side crossed the chalk on three occasions. Pienaar’s two penalties in November 2008 were also decisive in the narrow 20-15 victory. Going back further, in June 2008 15 of South Africa’s 43 points came from penalties.
The Welsh coaching staff are acutely aware of their shortcomings in this regard, with backline coach Rob Howley stressing: ‘Discipline, particularly in the tackle area and cutting down on unforced errors are key to us. We have to make sure we don’t give silly penalties away.’
The offerings from the Wales camp suggest they would seriously fancy their chances of an upset should they remedy their chronic ill-discipline against the Springboks. That confidence isn’t misplaced, but it fails to take into account that injuries to key players will see them field a weaker team than has fronted in the four, three and five point defeats in the last three Tests. More pertinently, nothing suggests they will be able to cut down the Springboks’ primary kickers’ time and space by bossing the gainline and ensuring a slow recycle.
Springbok vice-captain Victor Matfield is, however, wary of their threat in this facet of play. ‘We all know they [Wales] have a hard, pressing defence and with that they compete very well at ruck time so, in their last game, England really struggled to get any quick ruck ball,’ he said.
‘That is something we have really been focussing on. We need to be accurate and we’ll also probably talk to the ref about that and see what we can do to keep them within the laws. That is something we want to sort out ourselves.’
You didn’t need great insight to point out that the Springboks under Peter de Villiers ‘don’t play’ in the anti-rugby sense Gatland implies. Certainly not in their most pressing assignments, where pragmatism has always trumped panache. Calls for it to change now are senseless, even though the rhetoric that conservatism secured the crown in 2007 is inaccurate.
The South African rugby fraternity must hope not for a change of gameplan, but for the excellent execution of the one they have resolutely purposed to follow in their major matches. This will call for the halfback pair of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn and to a lesser extent fullback Frans Steyn, to exhibit the kicking accuracy they did during the Tri-Nations of 2009. Furthermore, it will demand a determined kick-chase and a unified, accurate and physical challenge at the tackle point.
The Springboks clearly aren’t concerned about winning ugly. For them ugly is a relative concept, in the same way one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
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