SnailBoks on a slippery slope
OPINION: Jordie Barrett’s clutch long-range penalty goal will paper over many aspects of the All Blacks‘ play in Townsville, which might have been one of the worst performances in a long time from an execution point of view.
A total of 24 turnovers is 10 more than they had in the historic 25-15 loss to the Pumas in last year’s Tri-Nations, as the accuracy of the passing and reliable ball-handling went missing against the Springboks defence.
Tactically, the All Blacks were outplayed in many aspects of the game, including up front.
Had they not watched the Springbok maul defence attempt to barrel the Wallabies’ maul over the sideline every time over the last two weeks?
To know that was coming and still throw to the front of the lineout, nearest to the touchline, for every maul was not very smart. And not surprisingly, it failed to yield any results.
The Wallabies protected their possessions by having Michael Hooper peel from the maul almost immediately, leaving the Springboks pack to fall to the ground and out of play for at least a phase as the Australians then built phases to attack wide, whereas the All Blacks completely ran out of room to maul as the Springbok pack manhandled them out of play.
The late scratching of Luke Jacobson, a key lineout jumping option, may have been disruptive but surely there were other calls to hit the middle or tail? With many chances to put the game to bed early, the All Blacks’ bundled their lineout mauls from the five and wasted precious scoring opportunities.
Did they not watch the Wallabies tear apart the Springboks on the fringes?
The one set-piece play that called for width early in the red zone led to a yellow card for Sbu Nkosi for a cynical piece of play that had a high likelihood of ending with an All Blacks try.
With Nkosi still in the sin bin early in the second half the All Blacks went for, you guessed it, another lineout maul throwing to the front only to be repelled again and again. Then Nepo Laulala coughed up possession after being hammered in close.
When they went wide at other times in other parts of the field, they found success and big chunks of metres upfield yet in the red zone, they wanted to play narrow or maul against a Boks pack that had their number.
Trucking up David Havili by himself on other plays was equally poor, leaving him isolated and without a hope in hell to retain possession against an experienced Springboks midfield and lurking back row.
His first three carries on first phase resulted in turnovers.
The Wallabies used Kerevi or the wings to hit the weak lineout seam at the tail nearly every time with success to start their launches. The All Blacks ran straight into the midfield and turned the ball over too much.
There were many aspects of this All Black game plan that left a lot to be desired aside from the execution issues.
Even so, after playing with a high tempo for the first three minutes, the All Blacks were able to break the Springboks without much trouble even after an erratic Beauden Barrett pass that had to be scooped up five metres behind where it needed to be.
After that, the Springboks knew they could not handle the speed. You could be forgiven for thinking the All Blacks had just played the Springblobs, who were gassed and on the ground at every stoppage, needing help tying their shoelaces.
After defending an All Black lineout maul late in the first half as a guard – yes a guard, not even involved in the pushing – somehow, someway Trevor Nyakane needed attention for the next few minutes despite not being on the ground when the ref stopped play.
The defeatist stalling tactic was embarrassing to watch as the Springboks desperately needed to slow the game down. And it worked, with no conversations from the All Blacks leadership to the referee about the continual snail procession to every line out and scrum.
So they got what they wanted with seemingly no shame. Even the final result didn’t seem to shake their jovial and happy post-match attitude.
You would not have thought this was a side that had just lost three in a row. The game plan ‘worked’, the decisions to kick possession away late in the game were the right ones.
Yes, the game plan did put the handbrake on the All Blacks, forced them to play perhaps their worst performance of the modern era, and you know what? They still won.
So back to the drawing board because if you can’t beat them after that, when can you?
To get an All Blacks side to play so poorly and not finish them off is almost criminal with how rare those opportunities are.
Despite needing a bonus-point win to keep their slim Rugby Championship hopes alive, they rolled out a game plan that doesn’t produce a lot of tries either way, and often comes down to a few penalties goals. The Springboks kicked 38 times from hand to 18 from the All Blacks.
So they didn’t even try to retain the title, they rocked up to try and worm a win over the All Blacks, which had they achieved, would have seen them concede the trophy anyway. Defeatist.
Instead, they dragged the game into the gutter once again, bored the rugby world and got another loss for their troubles.
This was not the same approach the last time the two sides met in Japan, which was a high-paced, titanic showdown that left the world in awe as both sides used the ball frequently with balanced game plans. They kicked 24 times on that night, nearly 40 per cent less than in Townsville.
This was not the same approach, a year before that, when they upset the All Blacks in Wellington after scoring five tries, kicking just 18 times in the 36-34 thriller.
The first time the box kicking snorefest came out was the Wales semifinal, where they hammered 37 kicks into the night sky in Yokohama. That volume of kicking was actually a one-off that has somehow become their ‘DNA’ in 2021.
This approach was not replicated in the final against England, with more running, more carrying and only 24 kicks.
The B&I Lions series was really the first time this level of kicking has become the norm for the Springboks, with 37 in the first and 35 in the second test. And we were just treated to another 38 against the All Blacks after ‘too much rugby’ against the Wallabies.
To say this is who they are and how they play is simply not true.
The Springboks are capable of much more with the players at their disposal, many of whom played successful attacking rugby, compared to this current iteration, under Heyneke Meyer from 2012 to 2015.
The likes of Handre Pollard, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel and Willie le Roux all used to get the ball frequently and pass, constructing good tries.
Meyer’s Springboks held winning records of 75 per cent plus against all bar three tier-one nations: Ireland with one win and one loss, the Wallabies at near 60 percent, and the All Blacks, who were in the middle of their two World Cup runs.
They only won one from eight against New Zealand, yet challenged them with legitimate attacking play and old school Springboks physicality – running over people. They could handle the pace of a game and when playing in South Africa, often set the pace.
Although they did not come away with wins against New Zealand, the average score was 22-15 and this was an all-time great All Blacks side. Based on their dominant results against every other country, the clashes clearly kept them in good stature.
This Springbok side isn’t running with the All Blacks, or even at them, anymore.
This year the Springboks have adopted a playing style that is foreign to themselves. The defeatist, rugby equivalent of park-the-bus football.
They aren’t playing Southern Hemisphere rugby and truth be told, they might be in for a shock when they get to the Northern Hemisphere as well.
Wayne Pivac’s Welsh side are using the ball. Scotland are using the ball under Gregor Townsend. And England get to face them last up, tired, battered and wary – and you know Eddie Jones would love to reverse the World Cup final result.
Deride Northern Hemisphere rugby at your peril as what the Springboks are dishing up is actually far worse.
It is dangerously close-minded for South African rugby to think and play this current way, it is clearly one-dimensional and is not that reliable, going 2-2 when kicking more than 35 times since that semi-final in the World Cup.
If they lose to the All Blacks this week, they will be 5-5 on the year. They would then need to win two of the three games on the end of year tour just to have a winning season.
Imagine that for the World Cup holders.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass