Boks still in search of balance

RYAN VREDE, in Edinburgh, writes the Springboks continue to exhibit the foundation for success with excellent defence, but are no further to curing their attacking deficiencies.

The Springboks would have looked on enviously on Sunday when the All Blacks further underlined the gulf that exists between them and other elite nations in the game. Their benchmark team excelled on attack, running in six tries in their 51-22 victory over Scotland.

They are what coach Heyneke Meyer envisions his team becoming, but while they pale in comparison from an attacking perspective (more on this shortly), defensively they compare favourably with the world champions.

Indeed only Richie McCaw’s superlative team have consistently troubled and unhinged the Springboks this season, scoring five tries against them in two Rugby Championship Tests. However, a review of the Springboks’ Dunedin defeat will show individual errors at the heart of the Blacks’ two tries.

Central to the Blacks’ success against their traditional rivals is their ability to match and often dominate them physically at the gainline. Certainly it would be remiss not to note their unmatched capacity to punish from broken-field situations, but their primary threat is rooted in their array of world-class strike runners, whose power is accompanied by intelligence and awareness in the tackle and the constant presence of support runners. They’ve tormented the Springboks in a manner no other team they’ve faced has.

England scored five tries in the three-Test series during the Springboks’ formative phase under Meyer in June, Argentina and Australia were blanked for tries at Newlands and Loftus respectively, while Argentina crossed the chalk once in Mendoza.

On Saturday in Dublin Ireland simply could not breach the Springboks’ tryline, despite completely bossing territory and possession in the first half and having a one-man advantage just before the break. Ireland huffed and puffed, but the Springboks’ house increasingly appears to be built on a solid foundation and engineered with formidable features like belligerence, physicality (at times brutality), work rate, accuracy, communication, trust and, at times, desperation.

Openside flank Francois Louw continued to underline his value to the Springboks with another strong showing at the breakdown, but it must also be noted that the team has benefitted from Duane Vermeulen and Adriaan Strauss’s contributions in this facet of play. The trio became more prominent as the collective improved their tackle fight in the second half at Lansdowne Road, each effective in slowing the recycle, which in turn regularly allowed the defensive line to set, while Louw forced crucial penalties when Ireland threatened on attack.

I’ve written before that this should be a cause for optimism for the South African rugby fraternity. The world’s best sides have built their success on defensive solidity. However, that cannot mitigate the Springboks’ continued sterility on attack. They returned to their strengths – abrasive and patient forward play – to score their only try of Saturday’s match, but were uninspiring for the bulk of the contest, as they have been for most of the season.

A lack of platform or opportunities (statistically they’ve spent more time in the opposition’s 22m than any team in the world this season) are not problems. Meyer is privately concerned about the lack of X factor in his back division but has concerns about the size of men like Juan de Jongh (among others), whom many believe has that quality. How he solves that problem remains to be seen, but it is a matter of urgency. Expect this to improve moderately should more of his first-choice players be available in 2013, but it is essentially a coaching and selection issue.

Here’s hoping this problem doesn’t become chronic. For now, much confidence can be drawn from their strength of their defensive game.