Ben Smith: Boks are 'very good, not great'
OPINION: Rugbypass writer Ben Smith shares his views on the Springboks’ 2021 season.
The Springboks’ fifth loss of the year at the hands of England completed a tough season full of grit and determination, yet the final 8-5 record does little to cement this team’s status as a dominant force of the game.
Head coach Jacques Nienaber is well within his rights to believe his side is ‘better than the percentages suggest’, as any coach would.
He knows his team, his players and sees the potential they have. Every coach is susceptible to the same blind loyalty and inherent belief that comes with the job. If you don’t believe in your squad, who else will. In the process of continual improvement, the only mindset to have is to believe the potential is the sky.
But that same insider perspective can be a limiting one, as flaws are often unable to be recognised, addressed or even considered. Too much belief often comes with a disregard for reality.
In the midst of the three-game skid during the Rugby Championship, defiance was high on the agenda. The ‘DNA’ line was trotted out until it was stale. A foolhardy commitment to a defeatist game plan that wasn’t producing. They were ‘close’ to winning we were told, so that was an endorsement of the game plan.
Internally, now they are looking to three or four losses that came in the final few minutes this season to feel they are better than the results suggest, a redundant exercise in ego-padding which can have more negative consequences than positive.
We can be better is a very different message to we are better, which absconds from responsibility and only serves to build complacency in players’ minds after dropping five tests in a calendar year.
One could also point to the third Lions test, which was minutes away from a drawn series before a Lions error gifted the Springboks a kickable penalty goal to snatch a lead.
Or the second All Blacks test, ten seconds away from full-time needing a low percentage miracle to get back the ball to even stay alive.
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How about against the Wales B-side? Leaving it late to take a two-point lead in the 73rd minute and still giving Wales one last possession to go the full length of the field and win at the end.
Those are three wins that could have been losses, just like the four losses that could have been won. On the balance of all the games, this win percentage is exactly who you are and have been all year.
The layup games against the underprepared Los Pumas, the second Lions test and the win over Scotland at Murrayfield were the only comfortable displays over tier one opposition. The rest were a grind, with plenty ending up on the wrong side of the ledger. Over the long run, you can’t escape the percentages.
It’s just how these Springboks play.
For most of the year, they used a kick-everything game plan with a little-to-no attacking initiative that came down to one or two calls that sometimes fell their way, and sometimes didn’t.
That tin-arse approach of kick, scrum, maul and take penalties did not produce dominant wins. It just scrapped wins and then also failed them.
With this approach, they will always be in a lot of games to the very end, and then need uncontrollable moments to fall their way. Live by the whistle and then die by the whistle.
That’s why the referee commands so much focus. The referee is vitally important to the Springboks’ winning ways.
Does this mean they are a poor side? Not at all.
This isn’t a zero-sum, binary view of the Springboks. This is just the honest truth.
They are a very good side, not a great one, that plays to their strengths, tries to hide their weaknesses and is very rigid in their approach.
They are not looking to become a great attacking side that puts teams to bed early. They aren’t willing to adapt or evolve their approach too much. They are happy living and dying by the 50-50s, living off their pack, and then deflecting when it doesn’t work.
They have world-class players across the park, particularly up front in the locks and back row. Their work at the breakdown has been spectacular this year. If you bring a flawed game plan to the pitch, they will get you.
But if you plan accordingly, you can beat them.
Although their season finished at 8-5, there are clearly different circumstances this year that required many away games and the five at home were without crowds.
In 2022, they will hopefully get to play the Wallabies, All Blacks and Los Pumas at home in front of their fans in the Rugby Championship. It looks like Wales are touring in July and they will play Ireland, France, Italy and Wales on the end of year tour.
Next year’s slate is another chance for the Springboks to prove they are a historically great side and put together something more conclusive to go with all the mythology around their 2019 World Cup title, because 2021 certainly didn’t do it.
The biggest favour the Springboks can do for the rest of the world is continue to believe this way of playing is going to led to success in France in two years time.
They are doubling down on the same squad, it doesn’t seem like building depth was a priority this year. Despite the losses, the same line-up continually played in 2021.
Most of this pack will be in their early thirties by 2023, with experience and guile but a touch less dynamism. The spine of Faf de Klerk (32 in 2023) , Handre Pollard (29) and Willie le Roux (34) will also be a mature one by rugby’s standards. There isn’t any serious succession planning going on for anyone but Duane Vermeulen.
As the saying goes, if your enemy is making a mistake, don’t interrupt them. For the sake of everyone else, keep playing this way, with these players.
It barely got by in 2021, and likely isn’t going to in 2023 with another two years of wear and tear. History already proves that those that stay the same get left behind.
The All Blacks are currently a perfect example of that. Sticking with hangovers from the Hansen-era, playing the same game with the same plays under Foster, just fell apart in the two most important tests of the year.
Who now believes South Africa are far and away the world’s best team in 2021 after an 8-5 season? Scrapping the Lions by a razor thin margin? After coming third in their one annual flagship tournament? Just escaping embarrassment against Wales and now losing to a young England side?
Which top tier one side seriously doesn’t think they can beat them? Who would back them, outside of South Africa, if they extended their trip to Dublin or Paris next week?
If the illusion ever had you fooled, the fog should have lifted by now. The Springboks are a very competitive, 61.5 per cent winning team. Marginally less than they have been historically (62.7 per cent).
They are tough to beat but get beaten regularly. It’s that simple.
Welcome to a new era in test rugby, with no dominant team or leader. Everyone in the top six or seven teams can beat each other, as has happened in 2021.
And that couldn’t be better for the game.
By Ben Smith, Rugbypass