Wayward Boks must kick on

JON CARDINELLI writes of all the opportunities the Springboks have spurned in 2012, the missed goal-kicks have proved most costly. It bodes badly for a close contest with the All Blacks.

There is good reason to feel encouraged and inspired following Saturday’s performance at Loftus. The Springboks were at their fearsome best as far as uncompromising physicality and defence was concerned, and they also added another element to their game. With the introduction of Johan Goosen, they now pose a realistic attacking threat.

I’m not sure what point Heyneke Meyer was trying to make after Saturday’s match when he lamented the missed try-scoring opportunities. The Boks converted five of eight try-scoring chances, and that is a good return in Test rugby, especially in a competition as defensively-oriented as the Rugby Championship.

It was also the first time the Boks had managed to put five tries past top-ranked opposition since they thumped the Wallabies in September 2010. Mission accomplished. Right?

I understand that Meyer wants people to realise that these tries are the product of a game plan that has been in place since the first Test of 2012. What’s changed is that the Boks are starting to execute efficiently.

Meyer is right to say it will be tougher to score tries against the All Blacks, but I cannot understand his lack of concern regarding the goal-kicking.

He has always placed an emphasis on goal-kicking, and that hasn’t changed since he became the Bok coach. It was the reason Morné Steyn was backed for as long as we was, as Meyer believed Steyn had the ability to win matches. If Steyn could come through a bad patch of form, he would be an asset to South Africa once more.

But Steyn has struggled consistently this season, and has left Meyer with no choice but to pick someone else. That someone has proved a revelation, unlocking attacking strengths that most South Africans believed non-existent. But as good as Goosen has been for the Bok attack, the problems in front of goal have continued.

Goosen went into the Pretoria Test with an ankle injury, and this affected his goal-kicking. The responsibility was then passed to Ruan Pienaar, who succeeded with three from seven attempts. In total, the Boks were successful with three from nine attempts. It’s just not good enough.

The Boks aren’t going to score five tries against the world champions. The South Africans are capable of beating the All Blacks, and recently showed in Dunedin that they have the forwards and the defensive structures to match the New Zealanders. With Goosen at 10, they will have a flyhalf who can ask attacking questions, but they won’t run riot as they did in Pretoria.

The simple truth is that these clashes are always close contests. One kick can win the game. The Boks didn’t take their chances in Dunedin, leaving 21 points on the park through wayward goal-kicking. They can’t afford to make the same mistake when they host the All Blacks in Soweto this week. They can’t afford to miss one kick, let alone seven.

The All Blacks arrive in South Africa having already won the Rugby Championship. Will that detract from their motivation, will it make them easier to beat?

They arrived in 2010 for the final game of the then Tri-Nations, and still managed to edge the Boks in front of nearly 100 000 fans at Soccer City. The Boks must take nothing for granted. They must take every opportunity.

Their recent goal-kicking form doesn’t inspire confidence, and Meyer must treat this as a matter of urgency.

Frans Steyn injured the same troublesome ankle in training last week and was forced to miss the Pretoria Test. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was ruled out of the Soweto finale, or at least excused from any kicking duties.

Goosen’s own ankle problem stopped him from kicking last Saturday. Will it be that Pienaar is asked to continue this week? If so, he will need to be far more accurate.

Meyer claims that Pienaar ‘stepped up’ at Loftus Versfeld, but the reality is that Pienaar missed four kicks (10 points), while Goosen missed two (six points). That’s a total of 16 points that went begging. That’s more than the total of the three tries that Meyer lamented.

The Boks have been poor in this department over the course of the competition, converting just 19 of their 37 shots on goal (a record of 51.3%). It’s unsurprising that wayward goal-kicking prevented them from edging Argentina in Mendoza, as well as winning the Test in Dunedin.

Morné Steyn has goaled 13 out of 20 (65%), which is a poor return for a first-rate international kicker. Some of the individual penalties that he’s missed have also been crucial ones.

One more goal in Mendoza and the Boks may have avoided an embarrassing draw. More success in Dunedin (Steyn kicked one out of five on that occasion) and the Boks would have recorded a famous victory.

Had Steyn converted these kicks, we may have seen the Boks still competing for the Rugby Championship crown at this late stage, rather than just playing for pride. But then Steyn is not solely to blame for the Boks’ erratic and unreliable goal-kicking, as the other goal-kickers haven’t been any better.

Frans Steyn is viewed as a freak, even in Test rugby circles, due to ability to convert long-range penalty attempts. But his stats in the 2012 Rugby Championship don’t make for impressive reading (two from six) and bring the overall goal-kicking average down.

Goosen has converted one from four attempts, and Pienaar three from seven. Last Saturday was the first time Pienaar kicked in the Rugby Championship. His two from four return in the first half was enough to keep the scoreboard ticking, but in a closer contest perhaps the kicks he missed would have been scrutinised as bad misses.

What sort of form is Pienaar taking into a tight clash with the All Blacks? Meyer claims that kicking coach Louis Koen will address the problems in the build-up to Saturday’s game, but the stats over the course of this tournament, of all four kickers used, don’t inspire any more confidence in Koen than they do in the kickers themselves.

The All Blacks are the benchmark, and history will show that South Africa rarely beats New Zealand by outscoring them in terms of tries. It has so often been the case that goal-kicking edges these massive match-ups, and in that respect Pienaar, or whomever takes on the responsibility, will have a decisive role to play this coming Saturday.

Follow JC on Twitter
Follow SA Rugby magazine on Twitter