The Springboks were never troubled on their Northern Hemisphere tour. Now for the All Blacks in 2014.
The Springboks victory against France was emphatic. The scoreboard said nine points but it could have been 90 because France were never going to win in Paris from the moment JP Pietersen charged down Morgan Parra’s awful clearing kick with less than two minutes played.
Parra’s sluggishness and Pietersen’s vigour and growl summed up the two teams. France wanted to win but, given what they produced, clearly didn’t believe they could win. South Africa didn’t just want to win. They were desperate to win. And they played like a team that knew they could win.
SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett said afterwards that what has made 2013 a successful year for the Springboks is that they have beaten every team below them in the world rankings.
Mallett said that the ultimate prize was beating New Zealand but in the past Springbok teams have poxed the odd win against New Zealand and then stumbled against inferior teams.
Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks have achieved consistency in beating the teams one expects them to beat. France have been dealt with in Paris, Wales in Cardiff and Australia in Brisbane. Last year England were edged at Twickenham.
What remains is New Zealand, be it in New Zealand or South Africa. Next season shapes as the one in which this team has to break a four-Test losing streak against the All Blacks.
Paris delivered on the promise of the Boks forward game. It also told of the psyche of the team and the spirit within the Springboks.
All great coaches tell you that special teams are defined through their defence and not their attack. New Zealand, in winning the 2011 World Cup, did so with incredible defence. The evolved version of these World Cup winners beat France again a few weeks ago with a determined defensive effort.
The special teams in history show a willingness to scramble on defence, to make tackles their mates have slipped and to celebrate a try-saving tackle as much as they do a try-scoring moment.
Meyer’s Springboks, like Jake White’s 2007 World Cup winners, currently have the double of desperation and desire. They also have a power game that is being complemented with an appreciation for the laws of the game and a respect for nuances of the breakdown.
The Boks have often dominated the set phases, even against the All Blacks, but this is the first year that the players appear to understand the finer detail around what makes for breakdown dominance.
There is no one fetcher that plays to the ball. One man makes the tackle and with his Bok team there are usually two or three in support waiting to slow down the attacking ball or win it back.
The Boks have adapted to how, especially Northern Hemisphere referees, interpret the breakdown. They simply don’t allow the attacker any grace to place the ball. The defending team appears to have all the rights and the Boks have figured this out.
It makes for uninspiring rugby because there is rarely quick ruck ball won and the bulk of the November internationals in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Europe have been about attrition, physical superiority and the odd moment of genius.
The Springboks, in the past, have been exposed for failing to adapt to these interpretations and for becoming frustrated and losing their heads.
Meyer’s Boks were composed in Paris but the calmness did not mean they were not committed and fierce in how they turned defence into their most attacking weapon.
The Springboks defended with such confidence that France could have had the ball all night and they would still only have been a danger to themselves.
This was a case of slow poison and about a very big man methodically and coolly strangling the life out of a decent sized man.
Willem Alberts and Bakkies Botha were brutal in the collisions. And it was all done legally. Flip van der Merwe and Duane Vermeulen were strong and Francois Louw was a menance to the French and a disruption to the flow of their ball.
The front row, with Coenie Oosthuizen at tighthead, never took a step back.
Centre Jaque Fourie’s defensive organization was also first class and the chase from Pietersen and Bryan Habana turned every hoisted kick into a good one.
France were the opposite. They were committed but not desperate in their approach. They were bullied up front and their backs were lazy because of it.
France, with their physicality nullified, never had momentum, and never had go forward ball. This negated the kicking game of their halfbacks and France, for all the myth about their flamboyance and attacking game, don’t have the backs to chase a game.
The Springboks backs were superior on attack and in skill level. They were simply superior.