Springboks' Superiority: Fact or illusion?
As soon as Morne Steyn lined up the goal directly in front, it was always going to go over.
Once the world’s premier goal-kicker, Steyn landed two late penalties to maintain a three-point lead over the Lions in another tit-for-tat game that once again really offered nothing between the two teams.
The Springboks claimed the series 2-1 by the skin of their teeth. Beating the Lions is no easy feat, so no matter how the task is done, it is a significant achievement.
Particularly being 0-1 down, it was a mammoth wall to climb to salvage the series and they did that.
But significant does automatically not equal great, and this Springboks team is discernibly still average in many areas, still living off the same game plan from two years ago.
They are excellent in areas – a physical team with power in contact, a great maul, a great lineout, a tough defence. They work extremely hard at these areas of the game.
These tools are used in a one-dimensional game plan to make up for the obvious shortcomings – poor handling, poor catching, inconsistent passing – essentially the core components of any attacking game.
The supposed weapon of a scrum was a Jekyll and Hyde act that was a 50-50 crapshoot at best. Over the course of the series there was no real advantage to the Boks, collapsing all the time, conceding penalties nearly as much they won them.
They were once again incredibly poor in the air in the final test, unable to handle the aerial balls as nearly every single one bounced off the hands of the intended catcher.
This time they were able to pick up the scraps more often than not. Willie le Roux grabbed the first two rebounds from Lions kicks, and Cheslin Kolbe became another beneficiary in the second half when the ball bounced off Jasper Weise’s bicep and the Springboks fortuitously found their way into a fast-break opportunity.
Kolbe’s ability with ball-in-hand is second-to-none and he stunned the Lions with essentially his first opportunity to run since the South Africa ‘A’ game with a brilliant run to score the go-ahead try.
*Article continues below…
Outside of some Kolbe magic, it’s one-dimensional rugby. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, as we saw in the first two tests. In the third and final test, it was essentially down to the bounce of the ball as the sides were locked at 16-all.
You couldn’t get a series to prove how fragile this plan is more than this one.
Waiting for the ball to bounce your way and collect the 50-50 calls is not a genius game plan. It’s really not tactical genius as some have made out. Particularly when you aren’t great in the aerial contest and your game plan revolves around it. The Springboks were deplorable in the air the entire series.
And whether Springboks supporters want to admit it or not, the results say they are an above-average team barely above Springbok teams of the past.
Since Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber took over the Springboks as a duo and employed this style of game, they are 20-9-1, winning 66.6 percent of the games.
The Lions tour was perfectly smack bang on this average, with two wins and one loss, and could’ve easily fallen the other way in the last five minutes of the series.
Historically, the Springboks have won 62 percent of the time so it’s marginally better than what South Africa has been. An argument can be made it is emphatically worse aesthetically, but there are no bonus points for style after all.
*Article continues below…
If you just want to judge against tier one opposition only, they are 15-9-1, a win rate of 60 percent, less impressive and slightly lower than the historical average.
The coaching pair definitely revived Springbok rugby from the absolute lows of 2016 and 2017, but before being crowned masters of the game, consider that winning at 66 percent is below that of Joe Schmidt (72.2 percent), Eddie Jones (69 percent), Rod Macqueen (79 percent), and far below that of Steve Hansen (87 percent), and Graham Henry (85%) with the All Blacks.
The South Africans so desperately want global recognition for a 66 percent winning team it seems, but don’t realise that they won’t get it until they prove to be dominate for a proper stretch of time, which, in order to achieve, would likely require winning in multiple ways to beat all before them over a prolonged period.
And all we are seeing is the same game plan, rolled out every time with results that have to be said, are inconclusive.
If the third test plan was hoist it every time and hope for a call to go your way to give Morne Steyn a shot in the last minute, that is not going to go your way repeated enough times.
Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen when it doesn’t go their way, they want to blame the ref publicly instead of looking in the mirror.
The world is waiting for the Springboks to put together an 80-90 percent winning test season that doesn’t include the likes of Italy, Namibia and Canada and losing to New Zealand through a condensed World Cup test season.
That is the only way to eliminate the doubts outside South Africa about this team.
The question we want answered is whether this dire form of rugby that has produced a win rate of 66 percent can produce longer-term, undisputed dominance, at least for one year. That’s all. One genuine test season of extended success.
If you win two out of every three games, it won’t get you there. It shows you are a good team, a genuine force in test rugby but it is nowhere near the consistency we have seen from elite teams over the last decade.
Because that’s what great teams do. They compete against history, measuring themselves against the best of the past to secure a place as an all-time team as they are above those they compete with. These Springboks are still battling contemporaries, and often struggling to get by at that.
The Springboks winning the series 2-1 is a massive achievement given the circumstances. Does it prove their absolute greatness in history? It is only the starting block.
The 2007 World Cup-winning squad, over the three year stretch from ’07 to ’09 won 73.8 percent of the games, 31 games from 42. It included a 3-nil win over the All Blacks in the 2009 season to undeniably seal the deal.
This squad beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018 to end a nine-year drought. They backed it up by losing at home a fortnight later, before a draw and another loss in 2019.
So, under Erasmus as head coach, they are 25 percent against New Zealand. That is not going to earn you respect down here, far from it.
Former All Black Justin Marshall wrote as much in TheXV.Rugby: “I know it hasn’t sat well with the All Blacks that their big rivals have been able to sit on that spot without being challenged.”
If the Springboks are true to form in 2021 with 12 games against tier one opposition, they will win eight and lose four, or perhaps go seven and five. That would be a very good test season but doesn’t cut the mustard for more than that.
If they go 8-4 or worse, this myth that this is a great side will be put to bed.
If they are to put an 80 percent plus win season together, they can only afford to lose one more time this year on the way to 11 wins out of 13. The Pumas, Wallabies and All Blacks now await for two matches each before an end of year tour.
Only those in South Africa will deify this side, led from the top by an egotistical man who has enjoyed the glory but showed he can’t hack it under pressure and act with humility when the going gets tough.
Their first loss in the series led Rassie Erasmus to go on a toxic whinge-fest on social media, stooping to a new low and really setting the bar at Trump-levels of sour, sore loser behaviour that rugby has never seen.
All in the name of justice for the truth and absolute accuracy of the game, right? Where was this good-willed fight with World Rugby after games two and three? Ah right, nowhere to be found, only when your team loses.
Champions don’t need to play the victim-mentality blame game or bring the sport into disrepute. They just win and get on with it. The comeback series win would have looked so much better without Erasmus’ damaging cryfest.
This 66 percent winning team has stayed true to form and stayed the same. They are a very good team, a tough team to beat and play one way. They win twice as much as they lose, in ugly fashion.
When they lose, it’s also ugly, on and off the pitch.
However any suggestions that this is an all-time team that has proven their greatness is nothing more than prisoner-of-the-moment tripe.
They will finally be asked to put together a series of prolonged test wins over the next six months, by the end of the year we will know where this team stands.
World Cup holders. Rugby Championship holders. Lions series winners. It all looks good on the surface.
That’s what illusions are meant to look like.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass