Boks gave us reason to smile

The Springboks deserve praise for the manner in which they won June’s quadrangular series.

Who knows if the Springboks will beat the All Blacks in New Zealand and the Wallabies in Australia in the Rugby Championship. I’d like to think they can win against both rivals in South Africa in 2013 – and while I felt the same last year, it was a sentiment based more on hope than conviction.

A year ago I tipped the Boks to beat the All Blacks at Soccer City on the basis of the All Blacks having already won the Rugby Championship. I did not think the world champions’ peak would come at Soccer City and I also overestimated the quality of the Boks in their first season under Heyneke Meyer.

The progression of Meyer and his Boks will be tested in the Rugby Championship and, significantly, it will be possible to make a measurement based on last year. Only then can there be certainty in an opinion.

For now there can only be reflection on the June internationals against Italy, Scotland and Samoa – and even that will always be tempered because of the quality and pedigree of the opposition.

Italy were worse than expected, the Scots were tenacious and the Samoans were typically aggressive but ultimately disappointing. There was nothing new in the results, but there was a freshness in the Boks’ approach, because the player identification and selections allowed for a new dimension in attack that was absent in 2012.

Cheetahs utility back Willie le Roux and Bulls midfielders Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht were the biggest beneficiaries in the less pressured environment of playing teams ranked seventh (Samoa), 10th (Scotland) and 12th (Italy). And the standard of the opposition allowed Meyer to be liberal with his selections. It was easier to introduce Super Rugby form into a Test situation than it was a year ago when the Boks played a three-Test series against England. It was also easier for the Boks to be expansive against teams with defensive limitations and against line-ups who were never going to beat the Boks in South Africa.

Much was made of the Boks’ stutter against Scotland in Nelspruit but not enough was made of the 24 unanswered points the Boks scored to win the Test 30-17. I don’t subscribe to the view of scores flattering victors. The game is played over 80 minutes, just like a boxing world title bout is fought over 12 rounds. Whether a team scores its points in the first 15 minutes or the last 15 is irrelevant. What counts is they score the points.

The Boks, in all three matches, showed the qualities expected of a top-two team. At times they played with the conviction, purpose and expression of a team capable of being No 1, but never played like a team ranked No 1.

Meyer knows his squad cannot yet claim to be the world’s best but they aren’t far off. Then again, neither is Australia and on occasion England and Wales.

Perspective hasn’t always been a word South African rugby people have embraced but the more aware and level-headed have come to terms with the reality that historically the Boks win 66% of their games. The point is the Boks do lose – and they pretty much do so every year. So don’t be shattered if they drop a game or two in 2013.

It is how they won in June that has to be celebrated, even if it may not translate into Rugby Championship title glory.

The Boks played good rugby. There was nothing revolutionary about what they did, but there was something familiar about the appreciation of width on attack, of depth among support runners and also of field position and line kicking. It is something we have seen with Bok teams that have been ranked No 1 or have been champions of tournaments.

Good South African rugby is no different to good New Zealand rugby, and it is no different to good English rugby when Clive Woodward’s side won the World Cup in 2003.

The very good sides always enjoy a top-class pack, a No 9 who brings continuity in his passing game, a No 10 who can dictate the areas in which the game is played, at least one midfielder who breaks the line, a potent finisher on the wing and a fullback who runs great attacking lines from set-piece play and whose running isn’t limited to counter-attack.

The Boks, in Jano Vermaak, Morné Steyn, Engelbrecht, Bryan Habana and Le Roux, had individuals who excelled and they also had a leader in Jean de Villiers to provide the calm throughout.

De Villiers has presence as a player and a leader. He remains the best inside centre in the country and one of the best in the world. His leadership has matured and he understands the small margins that determine winning in Test rugby.

De Villiers will also perform better in a Test environment than in Super Rugby because the great players know there isn’t a second chance to get it right. He may appear to lack the flamboyance of others in the position but Test rugby is an environment that rewards those who respect restriction more than those with a disregard for accuracy.

Le Roux’s adventure at fullback wasn’t stifled in the June internationals but he must be allowed to settle as a Test player because against better opposition he will be required to show better judgement in his decision-making. He did many good things but he also made basic errors of judgement, which were never going to be costly because of the opposition’s limitations.

His adventure must be encouraged but with each Test he will realise that he plays for a team and not for the spectators. His unpredictability can become his predictability against the best teams, who will test the balance of his game.

Le Roux’s natural ball-in-hand instincts have added an edge to the Boks’ attack and he knows how to create space through the timing of his offload. He has a natural feel that will be encouraged but his challenge is to show he can play the percentages when the situation demands for more circumspection.

Engelbrecht’s education as an outside centre continues. He is still making mistakes in his defensive alignment but they are less frequent and he is more confident in his own physical ability when on the ball.

There is no replacement for natural power and pace in a No 13. Jaque Fourie had it. So does Engelbrecht. In time he will add maturity to those qualities and, with that, the understanding and appreciation that so much of his decision-making comes when he doesn’t have the ball.

Vermaak, at scrumhalf, was impressive. His service is quick and energetic. There was nothing laboured about his passing and the Bok backs always had a fraction of a second attacking advantage because of what Vermaak was doing. I’d love to see him get more opportunities because the Bok backline unit looks better when he is at No 9. Ruan Pienaar played well in a very different way and Meyer has two scrumhalves who offer contrasting strengths.

Steyn, at No 10, has never played better for the Boks. He deserved to start every Test and he will be an even better player because of the overseas experience when he plays for Stade Français in the French Top 14.

Loose forward Arno Botha’s knee ligament injury was unfortunate because he does have the X factor, and Francois Louw is an example of the benefits of two seasons in the English Premiership, where he is captain of Bath.

Louw is a more complete player than when he left Cape Town but Meyer’s lack of interest in Heinrich Brüssow will limit the potency of the Boks should Louw get injured. Louw didn’t play against Scotland and while replacement flank Siya Kolisi was outstanding in his Test debut, he doesn’t play a similar role to that of Louw or Brüssow at the breakdown.

Brüssow is the kind of player whose work at the breakdown has also stifled the All Blacks’ fluidity and I remain a disciple of his value against top teams like Australia, New Zealand and England.

Injuries continued to cause disruption to the Bok loose-forward combinations and the ideal combination has yet to be settled on because of the injury situation. The Boks, individually, are strong in the loose forwards and especially strong at hooker, but the depth at lock isn’t as comforting and neither is it at tighthead prop. Then again, which country can boast two quality tightheads? Some don’t even have the luxury of one.

Adriaan Strauss was again the unsung hero but as well as he plays, it will be difficult to select him ahead of a fit-again Bismarck du Plessis, whose breakdown work is unrivalled for a hooker.

Du Plessis, during his brief reintroduction to Test rugby after nine months on the sidelines, immediately showed his value in winning turnover ball and he is the best hooker in the world.

The Boks, when you consider Chiliboy Ralepelle and Schalk Brits can’t make the match 23, have the type of hooker options usually only found in the personal services classifieds.

Meyer, in the past 12 months, has baptised an entire team of new Springboks but he has also kept the veterans involved and still interested, Brüssow being the exception.

It’s looking good for Meyer and his Boks, which means there’s a reason to smile, even if any celebration of South African world domination is still too premature.

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue is on sale next Wednesday.