MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the Springboks have to change who starts and how they play if they want to defend their World Cup title.
Forget the old cliché that this was a character builder for the Boks. This team of champions has enough character and they’ve been through enough scraps in the last eight years to never want to endure another 80 minutes like Sunday’s in Wellington.
The Springboks don’t need more exposure to character-building situations in this World Cup and the head-coaching trio, out of their depth for the last four years, surely don’t need another match to know that the best XV has to start every game in this tournament and that includes Bismarck du Plessis at hooker and excludes Morne Steyn at flyhalf.
The Welsh goal-kicking implosion in the last few minutes means there can be calm in the Bok camp and not the hysteria that would have followed defeat.
There can be perspective and not national persecution. There can be reflection and not condemnation.
Wales flyhalf Rhys Priestland missed a drop goal from smack bang in front with five minutes to play and fullback James Hook fluffed the chance to win the match with an angled 35m penalty three minutes from the end. Had either of those two kicks gone over the mood in the Bok camp and the emotion among the South African rugby public would have been a lot different than it is this morning.
I keep on writing about the honesty needed within our rugby and within the Bok squad. It has never been more appropriate than this morning. Forget patriotism for a moment and focus on pragmatism. The patriotism at this tournament belongs to New Zealand. The Boks need something more tangible to defend the title won four years ago.
The Boks remain one of three teams who can win this tournament. Australia put down the biggest marker in the first weekend and New Zealand’s home ground advantage remains their biggest asset because they are limited as a team and the great among them merely balance out the many mediocre All Blacks playing for a first World Cup win in 24 years.
But for the Boks to move on from the Houdini escape in Wellington there has to be an acknowledgement of what works and what doesn’t. There has to be criticism from within that is not interpreted as a negative but rather is applauded as a positive. To win here the Boks have to change who starts and how they play. Wales gave every South African the most timely reminder that what worked in 2007 won’t be good enough to beat one of Australia or New Zealand in a play-off.
The Boks next nervous 80 minutes will be a probable quarter-final against Ireland and the examination will be as demanding as those questions asked by the Welsh.
Samoa, in the pool match-up, won’t challenge the Boks because they don’t have the game or the composure to win ugly against a side as experienced or powerful as South Africa.
Wales were outstanding. Let’s start there. Welsh coach Warren Gatland tactically got everything right against the Boks. They kept the ball, kept it close, used the powerful Jamie Roberts to run at Morne Steyn all match and played the field percentages almost to perfection.
Welsh captain and specialist fetcher Sam Warburton was colossal. He played with the precision and irritation of a young Richie McCaw and starved the Boks of ball. He deserved to lead a historic triumph in Wellington.
Wales had 60% of territory and possession, conceded just five penalties – only one of them kickable – and poached three South African lineouts.
Yet they still lost because it is not in their DNA to beat the Springboks, and when the biggest moments of the game came their players did not have the nerve, the conviction and the courage in decision making to win it. Wales were in unfamiliar territory against the Boks and the match they talked of all week they couldn’t quite play out according to script.
Aside from Australia – and possibly New Zealand – this Welsh effort would have beaten every team at this tournament, but that will be small comfort to Gatland and Warburton.
The Boks, beaten on the ground, in the air, in the tackle and in the collision, were never beaten in their minds – and the belief that they could conjure up seven points, almost at will, never deserted them.
The opening try to the impressive Frans Steyn was vintage Boks, but what proved to be the match winner from Francois Hougaard in the 65th minute showed the qualities of a champion who has been there before and delivered.
South Africa always had the one punch to strike from anywhere that was more threatening than the collective build-up of so many impressive Welsh attacks.
Bismarck du Plessis was monumental in the final quarter, Hougaard was inspirational and Willem Alberts was destructive. Not so those they replaced.