The Boks, as much as the rugby world may hate it, need to revert to what works for this team and if they do, we’ll have a contest against the All Blacks in Townsville, write Mark Keohane and Oliver Keohane.
Ollie and I did our own debrief of the 30-17 second Test defeat, had a third viewing of the Test and looked at the statistics in relation to the play, the time of play and also the match context.
What is blatantly obvious is that the Springbok players got influenced with the narrative that they are boring, that they are one-dimensional and that if they continue to play the way they did in losing one Test out of their last 13 before getting to Australia, then they would be accused of killing Test rugby as a spectacle.
Test rugby was never meant to be a spectacle for spectators, so that they don’t tune into another sporting code. It was never meant to be just about just how many passes a team makes. Test rugby was about taking what works for you and testing it against what works for the other teams.
Bledisloe Cup Test matches are mostly spectacles because the All Blacks and Wallabies have a very similar approach and player skill set. Not necessarily so when the likes of England and South Africa play.
The 2007 World Cup-winning captain John Smit, in the build-up to the first Test defeat against Australia, insisted that the Boks needed to stick with what worked for them. He said the rest of the rugby-playing nations hated Tests against the Springboks when South Africa played to its strengths, which was a strong set piece, line speed on defence and aggressive one on one tackling.
The moment the Springboks try to play like Australia or New Zealand in Tests against Australia or New Zealand, it becomes a one-sided hammering.
There was nothing wrong with the Boks approach in the 28-26 defeat, except a lack of discipline and understanding of the referee interpretation, which allowed Quade Cooper to kick seven penalties. The Boks were condemned for making 54 passes, but they scored three tries to one, missed 10 points in kicks and were 20 seconds and one scrum away from winning for only the second time on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard in 28 years.
In the second Test, in which the Boks changed what had been their blueprint since 2018, they took a beating on the scoreboard but statistically showed wonderful numbers. They tried to play like Australia usually does, despite being ill-equipped to do so, and Australia played very much like physical Bok teams do and got the reward.
The Boks in the second Test defeat made 120 passes to Australia’s 81, they won 67 rucks to Australia’s 42 and enjoyed 60 percent possession and field position. They also only completed 50 tackles to Australia’s 95.
There was very little critique of Australia winning a Test, in which they kicked the ball 26 times and passed it 30 percent less than the opposition and in which they made nearly double the tackles and had only 40 percent of the ball.
However, in the first Test, the Boks had 43 percent of the field position and possession, made 54 passes to Australia’s 129, won just 45 rucks to Australia’s 72 and put themselves into a winning position by scoring three tries to Australia’s one.
This Bok team has dominated teams because of a blueprint that speaks to their player strengths. They can scrum and maul opponents and make aggressive tackles for 80 minutes because that is where they focus their energy resource and their intensity.
The Boks, in the second Test, had 20 percent more possession and field position, passed the ball 66 times more than they did in the first Test and made 50 percent less tackles. Australia, by contrast, had 20 percent less ball and field position, made 95 tackles compared to 69 in the first Test and kicked 26 times from hand, as opposed to the 16 in the first Test.
Australia, for all their passing, ball possession and field position advantage in the first Test got one try and relied on an 80th minute penalty to win a match in which they were outscored three tries to one.
The Boks, for all their passing, ball possession and field position advantage also only got one try and were outscored four tries to one.
If the Boks try and play with so-called variety, width and intent to move the ball around for the sake of moving it around, they will take a big beating against the All Blacks.
If they go back to what they know, they give themselves a chance at victory, however ugly it may appear to the rest of the rugby world who believe the sole purpose of Test rugby has become to make it a more attractive and easy on the eye spectacle.
The Boks, at Suncorp Stadium, took their eye off the ball when it comes to their blueprint.
If they get it right and revert to type we’ll have one heck of a Test match, which pits two contrasting styles and player strengths up against each other.
Isn’t that what Test rugby was always meant to be and hasn’t that been the case over 99 Tests between the two countries?
So here is my question to those Bok supporters who have been duped into this notion that the Boks must play with more enterprise, and mirror the Wallabies and All Blacks approach, how does it feel on a Saturday afternoon when your team has had all the ball, made all the passes, enjoyed all the advantages and lost.
I know for me, it felt bloody terrible.
So give me those sky high kicking hoists, the defensive line speed, the aggressive one-on-one tackles, the dominant scrum and that incredible Springboks rolling maul every Saturday of the year.