Listening to the Bok coaching team talking about how they intend to abandon the kick-chase game-plan in favour of a more ball-in-hand approach reminds me a little of someone wanting to escape a bad relationship. It’s always a case of “yes – I’m definitely leaving! This can’t go on another day!” and yet somehow, nothing ever seems to change; a reason is always found to stay.
Let’s not beat around the bush here – the Boks were very fortunate indeed that the Grand Slam dream is still alive, because, apart from a 15-minute purple patch in the second half, they were utter crap against the Welsh. This is not meant to take anything away from the great resolve, character, guts, determination and any other number of similar words that the Boks showed in resisting the frantic Welsh attack in the closing ten minutes; rather, the point is that if the Boks had played smarter rugby for the opening hour, there would have been no need to put in that sort of Herculean effort in the final period.
The Springboks boast one the most formidable tight fives in world rugby and with good loose-forward options plentiful in the squad – so plentiful, in fact, that trying to ensure even a little bit of game time for all of them is proving difficult. Apart from having the men to ensure set-piece dominance against most, if not all comers, the Boks are blessed with any number of strong ball-carriers amongst the forwards; men who have shown the ability to create pressure on the opposition with ball in hand and to cross the advantage line, thus allowing the team to move forward while retaining possession. Any idiot will tell you that if you can do this enough times, protecting the ball in the process and getting the scrumhalf to move it on quickly, you very soon end up in the position where you are playing against a retreating defence. That’s where you want to be, of course, because that’s what creates the space for your inside backs to exploit.
Right now, we’re doing nothing of the sort – or at least, playing that sort of game seems to be the thing that we only do once we are so far behind we become desperate. Instead, we opt to squander every bit of hard-won possession by hoofing it straight down the throats of the opposing wingers, hoping that in some way our outside backs will put enough pressure on with the chase that an error or turnover will ensure. That may have worked in the days when we had the physical presence of JP Pietersen in the mix – or a the version of Bryan Habana that knew how to execute a tackle. Right now, all that it achieves is handing good ball straight to the opposition, while taking our strong pack completely out of the game. It really shouldn’t take a genius to figure this one out – in fact, you just need to go back and look at all of the tries the Welsh scored against us on Saturday and the evidence is pretty clear. Give away possession, give away points. Simple equation.
Unfortunately, geniuses seem be rather thin on the ground in the Bok coaching box these days.
The Boks have the players to play a ball-in-hand game. The tight five, packed with strong ball carriers and any combination you’d like to try out of the umpteen loose forwards on tour is ideally suited to building pressure through phases, using pick-and-go or a short-passing game. In Francois Hougaard and Pat Lambie we have a pair of halfbacks who understand the value of quick possession and accurate distribution, although there’s no reason why Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn couldn’t do the same, if allowed to by the coaching staff. They key here is picking backline players that are able to make things happen with ball in hand and again, with the likes of Jean de Villiers, Adi Jacobs, Gio Aplon and Lwazi Mvovo available, there is no shortage of pace, power and creativity. Kick-chase is essentially an admission of failure – it’s conceding that your backs are not able to make things happen based on their individual skills, but are rather dependant on using brute force to pressurise their opponents into committing errors. I feel our backs are better than that and a guy like Dick Muir – who is supposedly a great exponent of allowing players to make their own decisions on the field – needs to put his money where his mouth is.
The Boks are fortunate, to an extent, that they have a relatively easy game coming up against Scotland this weekend – one which may allow room for a little experimentation in terms of team selection and approach. The danger, though, is that they won’t have to play particularly good rugby to win at Murrayfield and they run the risk of seriously deluding themselves if they think a good win there (perhaps using the same old tired game plan) will translate into success against England the week afterwards.
Mark my words here: If the Boks don’t change their game, they will lose against England in a fortnight’s time.Tweet