The Springboks won the World Cup, beat the British & Irish Lions in a Test series & came within 2 minutes of stunning the in-form All Blacks after being on the road for 17 weeks. They did it playing a particular way, more out of circumstance than choice. Stop bashing them, writes Mark Keohane.
Here’s a question, when the Springboks lost 57-0 to the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2017, if I had written the following on that Saturday afternoon (SA time), would anyone have believed me?
Here goes: ‘It will get better people. Today is the lowest point in Bok rugby history against the All Blacks, 57-0, but in 12 months time, the Boks will come back to New Zealand and score 36 points and beat the All Blacks. They will also in 2018 be together for five days and come from 24-3 down to beat Eddie Jones’s England 42-39 in Johannesburg, the same England that in 2017 tied the All Blacks for a record 18 successive Test wins.
‘The Boks, from that awful 57-0 night in Albany, will also go to Japan in 2019 and become the first team in the competition’s history to lose the opening game of the World Cup and win the tournament. They will do so by destroying an England team that a week earlier had destroyed the All Blacks.
‘Then these same players will not get to play Test rugby for 20 months because of Covid, play one Test against Georgia, be isolated because the bulk of the squad tested positive for Covid and have a week to prepare for the strongest Lions squad that had toured in 12 years, according to their coach Warren Gatland. They will recover from losing the first Test to beating the Lions 2-1 in a series, having been in a bio-bubble for seven weeks, and they will win the final Test without their first choice No 7, 8 and No 9.
‘They will then roll Argentina by 20 points respectively on two successive Saturdays playing two different starting line-ups and they will then go into quarantine in Australia for a fortnight before playing four successive Tests against Australia and New Zealand.
‘They will score three tries to Australia’s one in the first Test and lose by a penalty in the last kick of the game. They will then recover from 12-3 to lead 17-15 in the second Test before experiencing a horror last 30 minutes and lose 30-17.
‘These fatigued and emotionally drained group of players will then summon everything they have to front the All Blacks in the 100th Test between the two countries and on 77 minutes actually be leading 17-16 against an All Blacks team unbeaten in nine matches, having beaten Australia in three successive Tests (including 57-22 in Auckland) and a team averaging six tries a Test.’
Who would have believed me? Very few but the non-believers would have taken that storytelling every day of the week.
The mental resolve from the Boks to put themselves in a position in which they should have won the Test against the All Blacks in Townsville is mind-boggling in its strength.
This group of players, into their 18th week away from home, since the beginning of June, limited this all-conquering and flamboyant All Blacks attack to just one try, scored within three minutes of the Test.
For the record, the All Blacks came into the Test ranked one in the world and having not lost in 2021. They also were a team that had enjoyed the advantage of playing their first five Tests at home, in front of crowds and in normal living conditions.
The majority of New Zealand rugby analysts and one former coach in Laurie Mains predicted a humiliation for the Boks. Score predictions were of a 30-point plus differential and of the All Blacks backs running riot.
It never happened because the Boks game plan suffocated the All Blacks and forced them into hurried passes, dropped passes and the pressure of the physicality at the set piece forced the New Zealand set piece to falter badly in the final 20 minutes.
Credit to the All Blacks for showing tenacity and fight to hang in and keep themselves in the game, force a penalty and then for Jordie Barrett to kick the type of pressure penalty that is a turning point in his Test career.
Take a moment from all the disappointment and appreciate what these Boks have done since 2018 and are doing before condemning them for what they are currently not doing.
These Boks know how to play expansive rugby. You only have to go through their record since 2018 to know they can score tries because they scored five against the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018 and four against the All Blacks in Pretoria in 2018. They also scored plenty against England in Johannesburg in 2018. They also scored plenty at the 2019 World Cup.
But this is also a team whose leadership understood who they are playing in 2021 and, with no Test rugby for 20 months, what was required to give the Boks the best possible chance of winning.
The Lions were lauded for being the most potent attacking threat in the build-up to the three-Test series, but after 240 minutes of Test rugby they had lost two of the three Tests and scored two tries from lineout mauls.
That demands some acknowledgement for the efforts of the Boks.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, in these crazy Covid times, had to determine an approach that was short term and designed to beat the Lions and potentially get victories against the Wallabies and New Zealand, knowing the matches would not be played in South Africa.
They were 20 seconds away from getting this win against the Wallabies and two minutes away from doing the same against the All Blacks.
Their reliance on a low risk, strategic aerial kicking game spoke to the natural strengths of a squad of players who missed 20 months of Test rugby post the high of the 2019 World Cup.
This was a horses for courses approach and the ultimate goal in 2021 was to beat the Lions. They achieved this.
The fact that they came within a kick of knocking over the All Blacks in Australia is nothing short of a rugby miracle.
The abuse of how they are doing it is unwarranted when the context to why is understood and appreciated.
You only have to know Rassie Erasmus to know that the Boks in 2022, under friendlier and more normal circumstances, will have a more encompassing and balanced approach.
For now, in 2021, the leadership determined an approach born out of survival as much as the prospect of success.
The Boks did not lose to Australia in the first Test and to New Zealand in Townsville because of the wrong game plan. They lost to Australia because they couldn’t control their own scrum feed with 20 seconds to go. It was down to player malfunction in application.
The fact that they lost the Test in the final two minutes to the All Blacks was down to poor decision-making from players, not just in the final two minutes but in the final five minutes when better decision-making should have closed out the Test.
The players made mistakes and it cost the Boks the Test but the game plan was spot on to get the win, however ugly it may have appeared to anyone not supporting the Springboks.
Whatever happens on Saturday, these Boks should be applauded for a year in which they did what the 2015 World Cup-winning All Blacks of 2017 couldn’t do, which was back up their 2019 World Cup win with a series win against the Lions.
If 2019 was only about the World Cup for the Springboks, then the biggest prize in 2021 was the Lions series. They got that. Getting anything more was a bonus and while they didn’t get that bonus against the All Blacks in Townsville, they did do justice to 100 years of battle against the men in black, in what was the 100th Test.
Cut them some slack, get behind them one more time on Saturday, hope for better decision-making from their senior players in the biggest moments of the Test and appreciate just what these players, coaches and management have endured in 2021 to have given South African rugby supporters bragging rights for 12 years when it comes to the Lions and respectability when it comes to fronting an All Blacks team that had destroyed every team faced in 2021.
Watch the Moneyman and Keo reflect on the Springboks Centenary 19-17 defeat to the All Blacks in Townsville, Australia
Also on www.keo.co.za