Bok bullies handed reality check

JON CARDINELLI writes that England lost Saturday’s Test but made a powerful statement through the performance of their pack.

England can still win this series. The final scoreline at Kings Park was not reflective of the visitors’ forward dominance, as they bossed the battle at the gainline for the first 60 minutes. Their loose forwards ensured the Boks struggled for quick ball at the ruck and in some instances effected some momentum-stalling turnovers.

The Boks secured the majority of their set-piece possession, but coach Heyneke Meyer will be disappointed with the manner in which that ball was used, or squandered, in subsequent phases.

England were the more physical side at the gainline, and a combination of English physicality and the Boks’ failure to clear the opposition away at the tackle point equated to a stop-start evening for the Bok attack.

Nobody should have expected the Boks to produce a polished showing in this first game of the season. But what should have been a given is the trademark physicality.

There were standouts for the Boks, Willem Alberts by far the strongest performer on the day. There were robust performances by centres Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers, as well as a combative and determined showing by Bryan Habana. But the Bok pack as a collective struggled to cope with England’s tenacity, and despite the visitors’ lack of experience they excelled as a forward unit.

If not for the poor decision-making and handling of the English backs in the first half, the visitors may have translated more of that early dominance into points. The half-time scoreboard suggested the game was tight when in fact the English had the upper hand. The Boks were fortunate to go to the break with the score at just 6-6.

The hosts turned in a better second-half performance at the gainline, with Alberts once again leading the way. He proved difficult to contain at close quarters and a terrific source of momentum. He also showed that he is more than a one-dimensional basher in this fixture, a well-timed offload to Jannie du Plessis ensuring South Africa kept moving forward into English territory.

While England’s halfbacks were guilty of poor decisions, Bok scrumhalf Francois Hougaard had a shocker. Hougaard’s slow service from the ruck base made things even worse for the hosts, who had struggled at the gainline for the better part of 60 minutes.

As the forwards lifted their effort in the last quarter and Ruan Pienaar was introduced at scrumhalf, the Boks as a unit looked more controlled and managed to pressure the English to impede. It was during this period that they also crossed the gainline more regularly.

The Bok scrum was secure to start with, and finished in dominant fashion. It was a powerful set piece in the 77th minute that would pressure England into a penalty and Morné Steyn put the result beyond doubt.

There is plenty for the Boks to ponder in the coming week. The number of penalties conceded at the breakdown should be a massive concern, as well as the Boks’ inability to cross the gainline on a regular basis.

England will lament their bad option-taking and handling errors, but should be encouraged by the accuracy and power of their forwards during the early stages. There are unlikely to be many changes to the Bok pack ahead of next week’s Test. The hosts will need to step up in more ways than one at Ellis Park if they’re going to deny this outgunned yet plucky and well-prepared England outfit.