Backs fail feisty forwards

JON CARDINELLI writes the fact that the Springboks’ produced such a rousing forward performance in Dunedin makes Saturday’s defeat doubly disappointing.

There were no expectations. Wins in New Zealand are rare, victories in Dunedin rarer. The All Blacks hadn’t been beaten since attaining world champion status. The Bok pack was operating with second-choice, and in some positions third-choice, personnel. If there was an expectation, it was that the All Blacks would wipe the turf with the Bok heavies.

The odds were against the Boks, and yet their response was inspiring. Not since the England series has Willem Alberts played with such accuracy and ferocity. Duane Vermeulen was prominent, as was specialist openside Francois Louw, but then the fantastic performance of the back row was made possible by a much improved tight-five effort.

The Boks outplayed the All Blacks at the collisions, and this allowed men like Louw to challenge Richie McCaw for breakdown supremacy. The old master was forced to employ all his best tricks, and despite his own pack’s inferiority at the point of contact, McCaw produced one of his best individual performances in an All Blacks shirt.

It’s not often that a side produces such a strong forward showing and still loses the game. It has been the source of many a Bok victory against the All Blacks. Despite the inexperience of the South African eight last Saturday, they had done enough to set the platform for another famous win.

Unfortunately, those heroes wearing Nos 1 to 8 were let down by the men wearing 9 to 15. For starters, the Boks managed to use that forward dominance to play themselves into good field positions. Then the goal-kickers missed out on 21 points between them. That forward dominance and prime field position also led to several try-scoring opportunities, but then the backline failed to convert.

The All Blacks won by 10 points on Saturday when they should have lost by 10. Not many people would have expected the Bok forwards to front like they did, but that doesn’t change the fact that a great chance was missed.

Today we should be celebrating an unlikely yet deserved win, against the world champions, in New Zealand of all places. Instead we are left lamenting not just another loss, but another lost opportunity.

Coach Heyneke Meyer has to learn from this experience. In the short term, he should be pleased that his forwards are firing and confident that they can provide that perfect platform in the two Rugby Championship Tests that remain.

But should he feel confident that the goal-kickers and backline can translate forward dominance into points?

It’s not a new problem. The Boks lost to the Wallabies in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final despite enjoying the majority of territory. They failed to take every kickable opportunity, and also blew a couple of try-scoring opportunities.

As has been evident in the 2012 Tests, poor finishing is still costing the Boks matches. It’s clear that the Boks are investing too much in the kick-chase tactic. I believe it has value and that it’s important to win the forward battles and territory, but what good are those minor victories if you can’t attack and finish once in the red zone, if you can’t obtain the necessary points?

In a sense, Meyer should be pleased with what he saw in Dunedin. There were moments where the Boks looked just as dominant and clinical as they had during the England series (think the second half of the first Test in Durban and the first half of the second Test in Johannesburg). But there is just not enough consistency when it comes to the attack. Too many try-scoring chances are being butchered, and because the Boks’ once reliable goal-kicker is out of form, they are losing matches they should really be winning.

Johan Goosen will be under pressure to improve the goal-kicking conversion rate in the coming Tests. There can be no guarantees of an improvement in that respect, but what we can expect Goosen to do is get the most out of that backline, to manufacture linebreaks and ask more questions of the opposition defence.

People may see his selection as a sign that the Boks are departing from a kick-chase strategy that has failed. They’d be wrong. The kick-chase ploy still has value and what South Africa desperately needs is somebody who can complement that territory-gaining strategy with an attacking game that creates and makes the most of opportunities in the opponents’ half.

Goosen boasts a fine line-kicking game, and as was shown in the second half of the Dunedin fixture, he attacks the gainline and brings dangerous runners like Frans Steyn into the game.

The backs failed the forwards last Saturday, but Meyer also failed the team by persisting with a flyhalf and goal-kicker who has neither the skill-set nor the confidence to play a more rounded game. That opportunity to win in Dunedin has come and gone, and for that Meyer must also accept some blame.

But what he can take from the performance is that the Bok forwards are capable of out-muscling the best in the world, and that in Goosen, South Africa does have a flyhalf who can play a balanced game.

Goosen’s ready to start and should be entrusted with the responsibility for the home leg of the Rugby Championship. Starting Goosen will help the backs match the forwards for momentum gained, and it should also ensure that the Boks make more of their attacking opportunities.

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