Springbok assistant coach Johan van Graan says there is still a high level of faith in their attacking strategy and adds that time will see it evolve into something more in line with national expectations.
Pressure is mounting on the Springboks after no wins in their last three Tests, with the perceived conservatism of the game plan being pinned as the primary reason for their struggles.
There is a growing sense that the players’ skills aren’t being utilised to their fullest potential and that the Springboks lack the layers in their approach to make them a bigger threat.
Van Graan doesn’t agree, citing the infancy of their tenure as mitigation for their struggles.
‘You can always improve and evolve. Heyneke [Meyer] said from the start that we’ll build from a base and look to grow from there. I believe we’ve evolved considerably from that first Test in Durban. Our ball retention has become a lot better, as has our contesting on the ground. The more the team plays together the better we’ll become,’ he told keo.co.za.
‘There were some tactical changes we tried at Dunedin that worked well and we’re looking at one or two changes for this weekend. But getting the game plan right takes time. It is a step by step process and hopefully Saturday is a step in the right direction.’
Some respected observers have lamented their sterile phase play in particular – Eddie Jones and Os du Randt among them – with greater variation being called for in contrast to the abrasive but predictable bash-it-up assault on the gainline. Van Graan sought to counter that criticism, explaining that much of their forward success against the All Blacks in Dunedin a fortnight ago hinged on changes that had been introduced in that facet of play.
‘I thought our phase play, particularly our second runners, was predictable against Australia in Perth. But if you watched the All Blacks Test closely you would have seen one or two tweaks. Frans Steyn got a lot of momentum in Aaron Cruden’s channel and our cleaners worked well. Then the variations on the second runner helped get us over the advantage line consistently and quickly,’ he explained.
‘That was only one Test, but we can build on that. It is about sharp decision-making. Australia and New Zealand invite you into the 15m and then look to counter-ruck you or create slow ball and then press you in the midfield. So we’ve worked hard with the outside backs in the decision making. Hopefully that reflects in our play.’
The Springboks haven’t lacked for try-scoring opportunities. Indeed statistics reflect a favourable comparison between the time they’ve spent in the opposition’s 22m and what the All Blacks have. Their finishing has, however, been poor. Van Graan acknowledged this and said that dramatic improvements are needed.
‘I don’t think you can pin-point on thing as the cause of that,’ he said. ‘Defensively teams are getting a lot better and are scrambling quite well. We have to improve our conversion rate though. There were quite a few opportunities in Perth and Dunedin that should have been points. We’ve had a good look at it. The key decision makers have to make better decisions as a starting point.’
By Ryan Vrede, in Johannesburg