RYAN VREDE reports on an uninspiring performance from the Springboks in their 14-14 draw with England in Port Elizabeth.
In many ways this Test reminded of its equivalent during the British & Irish Lions series – an already defeated foe galvanised by the incentive of a morale-lifting victory and a champion lacking the sharpness and efficiency that had earned it that title.
This dead rubber taught us much about Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks, not least of all that there is a long road to travel before they reach the point he envisages.
Certainly you cannot discount the absence of Frans Steyn and Willem Alberts when assessing their poor performance. The duo have been constant sources of momentum at the gainline, something the Springboks sorely lacked for the bulk of this contest.
Herein was the root of their struggle. Their kicking game was efficient if not outstanding, with Francois Hougaard enjoying his best Test in this regard, but once in England territory their play was then rudderless and lacked any discernible threat.
In addition, their ball protection at the breakdown was compromised by that lack of gainline punch and they surrendered possession or allowed England to stifle their recycle, the latter further undermining their attacking play. Too often the ball was shovelled from hand to hand with little purpose, and, under pressure, Springboks, often senior ones, took options that were unbecoming of players of their calibre.
It would, however, be remiss not to credit some part of the host’s impotence to a vastly improved defensive effort from England. Their tackle fight was accurate and physical and this enabled them to defend with greater structure than they had in the decisive opening quarter of the Johannesburg Test last week.
The Springboks led 9-8 at the break. England had taken an early lead through Danny Care, whose quick-tap penalty caught the Springboks cold. Morne Steyn would, however, boot his side ahead and it is almost certain that Meyer’s half-time message would have been delivered with an appreciable degree of gusto given his charges’ poor showing.
But unlike in Durban where there was a marked improvement in their play across the two halves, the Springboks continued to toil, their efforts growing increasingly disjointed and desperate. Fears of such a performance had been central to Meyer’s desire to recall seasoned players for this series, and he would surely have been wishing for some of the composure, tactical intelligence and accuracy of execution those men would have offered him.
Instead he had to hope for the superior individual skill of his players to shine through or pray for the exhibition of the magic his game breakers had the potential to offer him. There was no such magic evident in JP Pietersen’s 62nd minute score, only grunt and fortune, the latter evident in the pass to the winger so nearly being intercepted.
Steyn missed the conversion, his third miss of the evening. A stiff breeze and steady rain made goal-kicking difficult but not impossible, and the kicks were ones he would have been expected to bank. His indifferent form in this regard has endured throughout the series and will fuel the fire of his critics who believe he is a liability if not for his usually precise boot.
Sensing the prospect of breaking a nine-Test losing streak against the Springboks, England upped the ante, Owen Farrell levelling the scores with eight minutes to play. Two minutes later Steyn’s attempted drop goal floated wide and when the Springboks drove into the England 22m shortly thereafter they again failed to convert pressure into points.
England had the last shot at victory but they too butchered that opportunity to end a series that will leave both coaches with more questions than answers.