There is light at the end of the tunnel for the Springboks – and it is that they don’t have to go to New Zealand again in 2023. If they meet at the World Cup, it will be very different, writes Mark Keohane.
My analysis of the Boks 35-20 defeat against the All Blacks at Mount Smart in Auckland will be in the Sunday Times, but in summary the Boks were beaten by a better team, as was the case in Johannesburg a year ago. That sucks because in both Test matches the more inexperienced All Blacks showed greater physicality, more mongrel and intensity to get off to two fliers (15-0 in Jhb and 17-0 in Auckland), and they finished strongly in both Test matches.
There can be no complaints about the match officiating and there can be no ifs and buts about the result.
The Boks were comprehensively beaten by an All Blacks team that has no resemblance to the mob that stumbled their way around the world in 2021 and 2022. Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt are showing their value as forwards coach and attack coach.
The All Blacks are unbeaten in 57 Test matches in Auckland since 1994, so it was always going to take a special performance to beat them, whether the match is played at Eden Park, Mt Smart or across the Auckland Bridge at North Harbour’s Albany ground.
The Boks did not have that special performance in them on Saturday. Mentally, they were not at the races and they were never good enough to recover from 17-0 down to win. They showed signs of competitiveness when the substitute’s bench was introduced, but their overall effort was 20-points off what was needed.
The All Blacks won by 15 points, but they could have won 25 points, especially in an opening 30 minutes that yielded two tries for the hosts, but threatened to produce double that.
The Boks, on paper, fielded a potent 23, but Saturday will show that the coaching duo of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber got it wrong in starting with so many players short of game time.
Eben Etzebeth had not played a match in three months. To compound the situation he lost his father to illness this week. Mentally, he looked shot, which is understandable. Physically, it will also take him a few matches to get back to his peak. Lood de Jager has also not played for a few months and the starting back row of Jasper Wiese, Franco Mostert and Kwagga Smith never gelled.
Faf de Klerk was frantic and frazzled. It is never a good combination for the Bok No 9 and he was erratic. Damian Willemse, his pack taking a beating, was not a factor at No 10, again not a surprise when the pack is being dominated.
Damian de Allende at No 12 was another who wanted for Test-match minutes and left wing Makazole Mapimpi just looked lost. Even Lukhanyo Am struggled, with Cheslin Kolbe and Wille le Roux the best of the Bok backs.
The fearsome foursome of Malcolm Marx, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen had a positive impact when introduced at 45 minutes, but they should have started. Hindsight is a luxury Erasmus and Nienaber did not have.
We’ve seen two very different Bok line-ups start against Australia and New Zealand and there has been talk that we saw the ‘B’ team in Pretoria and the ‘A’ team in New Zealand.
I disagree, once the side is settled in selection, there will be greater balance, starting with the loose-forwards.
Marco van Staden, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen, for me, offer greater variety and balance as a starting loose-trio than Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert and Jasper Wiese. The key there is Van Staden who brings a Heinrich Brussow effect to any game, in how he slows opposition ball down.
When it comes to beating the All Blacks, the key is slowing that ball down. There is no coincidence that Brussow started all three Tests v New Zealand in 2009 and the Boks won all three.
Changes can be made and will be made by the time the Boks play Ireland in their marquee pool match. What happens in September and October in France will be decidedly different to what has happened in July in the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere.
I am not looking for an escape or an excuse. I felt the Boks, in the match 23, were good enough to win by six points. My score was 32-26.
On the day, they were well and truly hammered. Take it on the chin and learn from it.
The biggest lesson, I would say is the make up of the match 23 and the balance between who starts and finishes. The Boks have to go with a specialist No 10 who controls the Bok flow. It has to be Manie Libbok in Handre Pollard’s absence.
Damian Willemse’s versatility in playing 15, 14, 13, 12 and 10 works better as part of the six/two bench split.
Scrumhalf Grant Williams is perfect to play the last quarter, but he must just appreciate the mechanics of Test rugby and know when to snipe. Clever teams will give him the half gap every time, invite the snipe, isolate him and force the turnover.
Eben and Lood, with more game time, remain the starting locks, as does De Allende at No 12.
I do believe Kurt-Lee Arendse must be accommodated and Mapimpi is the one who misses out.
(Pieter-Steph) du Toit looks rejuvenated, Le Roux is strong at fullback, especially when he plays first receive from broken play, and Vermeulen is primed for one last hoorah.
New Zealand were exceptional in the opening 30 minutes and mentally strong enough to resist the Bok comeback in that period 45 minutes to 60.
Richie Mo’unga is the best No 10 in New Zealand. Beauden Barrett has been very good at fullback, the wing options are spot on, the midfield is right and the All Blacks have found their best starting XV.
They have got the balance right in starting and finishing among their forwards, their starting backs and if there is one area for debate, it is the make-up of their backline bench replacements.
As for the Boks, I know there were five who started in Pretoria and Auckland, but when I assess the presence of the other 10, I would comfortably pick another five from Pretoria in what I believe would be the strongest Boks run-on XV.
I’d pick the back row (3), the halfbacks (2) and Arendse.
Not a great Saturday for the Boks, but it is one Saturday that is a long way away from any World Cup play-off Saturday.
Be annoyed (as I am), be pissed off (as I am), but don’t be despondent.
There is much more on offer from the Boks come World Cup than what we saw at Mount Smart in Auckland.
And that is the only positive to take from the humbling at Mount Smart.