JON CARDINELLI writes that even without Dan Carter the All Blacks have the forwards, the kicking game and the counter-attack to nullify the Springboks’ kick-chase tactics.
The word from New Zealand is that coach Steve Hansen hasn’t been too impressed with the recent showings of his team, and that bodes badly for the Boks.
The All Blacks will come to the Forsyth Barr Stadium determined to make a point. Their chances of improvement are likely when you consider that the Boks will be missing a number of key forwards, and that their forward combinations are wanting for experience and synergy.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has made two changes to the pack that started last week. Flip van der Merwe replaces Eben Etzebeth at lock, and Francois Louw is favoured at openside flank. Loosehead Dean Greyling is selected on the bench, and could be asked to fill in at tighthead in the second half.
Meyer has persisted with Jannie du Plessis as the starting tighthead, even though he is carrying an injury. The Boks come into this game after an inconsistent scrumming performance against the Wallabies. They will start a tighthead who is not fully fit and may be forced to call on a loosehead to play No 3 later in the game. It’s hardly a recipe for success against a scrumming unit as formidable as that of the All Blacks.
Some will argue that scrumming is not the be-all and the end-all. Fair enough, but then when have the Boks ever beaten the All Blacks without dominating them physically? And here I am talking about bossing the collisions and taking control at the breakdown. The Boks know only one path to victory when they are playing against the New Zealanders, and when that avenue is blocked, they’re lost.
One of their best forwards of 2012 has been suspended, a player perfectly suited to this limited, albeit at times effective game plan. Etzebeth has been outstanding in his first year of senior rugby, exhibiting the necessary mongrel and grunt to help his side establish that physical dominance. Even when his side has been outplayed, Etzebeth has made a bruising impact, as was the case in the Stormers’ semi-final against the Sharks and the Boks’ recent battle with the Wallabies.
Bakkies Botha is unavailable, and the role of enforcer will fall to Van der Merwe. There have been concerns about a Bok tight-five that is wanting for experience, although ironically it has been their least experienced player (read Etzebeth) that has outplayed all his team-mates. However, the failure of this collective is what’s cost the Boks in recent games, and you can’t expect to prosper against the best side on the planet when you have that sort of problem.
I like the look of that starting back row, but how effective can they be if their tight five doesn’t lay the necessary platform? Louw will attempt to make a nuisance of himself at the breakdown, but he cannot win the ball or slow the opposition’s ball sufficiently if his pack as a unit is losing the battle at the collisions.
How then can the backline be expected to thrive in the game plan of choice? The All Blacks will put the Boks under pressure at the rucks, and this pressure will be transferred on to the Bok halfbacks. With less time and space, Ruan Pienaar and Morné Steyn will not be able to employ the kick-chase with optimal effect.
Meyer has spoken about getting the chase lines right and how the kick-chase tactic has value, but it cannot be successful unless there is dominance up front.
Meyer has persisted with Steyn because he believes the flyhalf is the best exponent of the kick-chase strategy, but Steyn is also prone to playing too deep when his forwards are copping a beating, and struggles with the accuracy of these kicks when the opposition forwards are in his face.
And what will happen when these high or raking kicks land in opposition territory? The All Blacks have been the best tactical kickers in world rugby for some time. Carter may not be available for this clash, but the Chiefs were the most well balanced side in the Super Rugby competition and for that their versatile flyhalf Aaron Cruden must take a lot of the credit. The All Blacks also boast Israel Dagg at fullback, and along with Carter, Dagg is currently one of the best tactical kickers in the world.
So why should the All Blacks fear a forward-oriented onslaught from a second-rate Bok pack, and a series of high bombs from a Bok flyhalf that is low on confidence and form?
There is of course, the other option of counter-attacking if the Bok kick-chase is poor. And again, the All Blacks have the versatile players to punish wayward kicks. Cory Jane, despite his size, is one of the best players in the air, and also one of the most dangerous on the counter-attack. So too Dagg.
There is little chance of the Boks out-muscling the All Blacks, so for me the overdoing of the kick-chase tactic is likely to backfire.
Meyer has painted himself into a corner by selecting Steyn. The selection of Pat Lambie or Johan Goosen at flyhalf would have given the visitors a more rounded and less predictable look, and given them a better chance of a good performance.
It was the big problem with Peter de Villiers’ Bok team, there was no intention to embrace a balanced game. Much of that refusal to evolve centred on the persistent selection of Steyn. Meyer is now guilty of the same mistake.