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Jake White's message to doubters after Boks' Auckland defeat

OPINION: Former Springbok head coach Jake White shares his view on South Africa’s defeat to the All Blacks in Auckland.

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What caught myself, and a lot of Bok fans out, was this perception prior to the game that just because New Zealand didn’t have the luxury of playing Super Rugby with our franchises in it, that they would somehow lack some intensity and physicality.

The common consensus was that the Springboks could catch them cold when it came to the physicality and tempo of the game. The feeling was that level of competition in the URC and Europe was more competitive than the fare they were used to. The logic being that three out of four New Zealand sides made the semifinals, with the Brumbies odd one out, and they’d had it easy.

Well, let me tell you, the exact opposite happened. In that opening quarter, it almost looked like we hadn’t played at their level. We were second best in nearly every facet.

In every area we anticipated we’d be too good for them, they left us trailing.

The second thing – and this is nothing new – is you can never give any All Black side a head start like that. If you’re 0-17 down after 20 minutes, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Full stop. In the history of the Rugby Championship, or its predecessor, the Tri-Nations, it’s highly unlikely that a side chasing a deficit like that will come back and win. Of course, it can happen but it’s not the norm. Granted, the Boks came back into it in the second half, but they deserved to be on the losing side.

What the loss has done is ignite debate about selection. The talk here in South Africa is: ‘Isn’t it time for RG Snyman or Malcolm Marx to start?’ Or, ‘Isn’t it time Kurt-Lee Arendse was unleashed’ or ‘Why isn’t PSDT [Pieter-Steph du Toit] starting?’

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The drums are beating for the Bomb Squad to start and the court of public opinion is criticising the fact we didn’t compete at the line-out and saying we gave away too many penalties.

What would I say to the doubters?

It shows what makes rugby such a great game because what it also throws up is questions as to whether the Boks, despite their enormous strength in depth, have held something back. Instead of the narrative that the Boks are too predictable and have nothing up their sleeve, fans are now left playing a guessing game.

One area people aren’t talking about is more fundamental: the defence. You have to go back to October 2018 when they last shipped four tries, against the same opponents, but there were plenty of opportunities for the All Blacks to make the scoreline look even worse, like when Will Jordan knocked the ball on five metres from the tryline, or two other opportunities where, from mauled line-outs, they didn’t quite get over the line. Hopefully, it’s an aberration, but we looked vulnerable.

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After seeing what happened in Auckland, I would flip it and say, what about the All Blacks? They were being written off by everyone nine months ago. All the talk was about Scott Robertson taking over immediately, the conclusion that Ian Foster wasn’t up to the job. Well credit to him and the NZRU. They made the difficult decision to let go of John Plumtree and Brad Mooar and they’ve stabilised the ship. Supporters are no longer calling for anyone’s head, but by the same token, no one is pumping up their tyres, which is quite scary with less than six weeks to the World Cup. All the talk is about France and Ireland but the All Blacks are quietly on a roll and no one should be discounting them.

To sum up the All Blacks defeat, Schalk Burger Jnr said it perfectly by saying there will be a lot more momentum gained by the All Blacks than the Boks. Compared to where they were nine months ago, they’ve bounced back.

How the All Blacks were in 2022, reminded me of how we were in 2006 when I was coaching the Springboks. I sensed a lot of relief in Ian Foster’s voice at the press conference. The same goes for Sam Cane. He’s been under the pump over the last nine-12 months, with pundits asking whether he was good enough for the shirt. Captain and coach have been backs to the wall in a rugby-mad country like New Zealand and they’ve emerged stronger for it. No one is questioning their credentials right now, which they must be thrilled about. Ian Foster is a pretty low-key character, pretty dry and down-to-earth, and he’s let his rugby do the talking. Fair play to him.

As for the challenge of the Pumas. It doesn’t remotely surprise me that Argentina beat the Wallabies in Sydney. I’m not the only one who has noticed how Australian rugby has gone backwards in recent years.

Having worked with the Brumbies, I saw this coming. They have made cuts to their academy programmes and they’re simply not bringing through the same calibre of player. When Michael Hooper, Will Genia, David Pocock were coming through, you could tell a lot of money had been spent on their development. They used to invest in something called ‘the Gold Squad’, where they spent time, effort and money to give their best players tailored plans. They’d send conditioning and skills coaches around the country to upskill those boys but from what I gather this hasn’t happened for a long, long time. This result isn’t just a one-off, where a new coach hasn’t given them a much-needed boost, there are much deeper problems in Australian rugby.

Saying that, Michael Cheika had immense motivation to beat Australia after the ARU (Rugby Australia) let him go. That gives a coach a certain edge, and he used the motivation with a fiercely passionate Latin team to fire them up. They didn’t just win, they never looked like losing, apart from that intercept a few minutes before time.

So what’s it like facing Argentina? I must tell you that their anthem is much longer than most. You end up seeing that passion up close and they use it as a huge motivating tool, like the All Blacks with the haka. However, despite the hugs and tears, they now manage it better. In the past, after 20 minutes of fire and brimstone, they’d burn out but now they are an 80-minute side – more professional and cold-blooded.

Over the last few years they have significantly improved their backline. They were known as a forward-orientated team who couldn’t play with width but that’s changed. A guy like Felipe Contempomi, who has brought all that IP from Leinster, is definitely adding to their attacking nous. I can see them getting an upset in France. It suits them. Their players are used to playing there and they have a good pool. If they beat England and Australia, which have done in the last 12 months, you could be looking at a semifinal spot. They did it in 2007, so why not now, when they have a stronger squad? Saying all that, I would still expect the Boks to beat the Pumas on Saturday.

Whatever the result in Johannesburg, and I’m not saying this to be a smart*rse, I think the game at Twickenham against the All Blacks will be the proper benchmark for where both teams are. In SA, most people expect us to have enough to overcome Argentina and I genuinely think they could make changes against Wales, but whatever the result of those two games, the big test is to get everything right in TW2. It’s an overseas Test match, so a bit like a World Cup game in that it’s a neutral venue. You’d think Jacques (Nienaber) and Rassie (Erasmus) will go fully loaded for that one.

By then, we should have a clearer idea about the fitness of Siya Kolisi and Handre Pollard. On Pollard, similar to Ireland, they don’t have an experienced No.10 right now. Whether it’s Manie Libbok or Damien Willemse starting, they are still unknown entities in knock-out rugby. When did Handre Pollard last play? It’s a long time and a concern.

As for Siya (Kolisi), the coaches are saying he maybe ready for the Wales game but I have my doubts, sadly. His being fit will be more a hope than an expectation. I remember the nation praying for Jean de Villiers, who was so unlucky with World Cup injuries, after rushing back from an ACL injury. I desperately wanted him to play but he has to listen to the medics. Either way, the countdown to the World Cup is well and truly on.

By Jake White, @RugbyPass

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