Springboks need to dare to be great
South Africa's Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Heinrich Broussow. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville
The Springboks opened their assault on The Rugby Championship with a comfortable and expected 27 – 6 victory over the Pumas of Argentina, three tries to none.
The victory was based on a 20 – 6 half-time lead, though. And in the early part of the second half, with only a 14-point difference in the scoreline, the Pumas missed three relatively easy shots at goal.
For long periods of play the Pumas dominated the Springboks before conceding the final and third try when Morne Steyn put in a beautifully judged wipers kick which Bryan Habana, the man of the match in my view, plucked from the sky with a tremendous leap to score a try in the far corner.
The Springboks out-muscled the Pumas in the first half. Habana made some searing runs. The defence was robust, sometimes overly so, and hard-shouldered. The scrums were solid. The lineouts occasionally went wrong but in general were solid, too. And Steyn’s goal-kicking was on target, with five successful shots at goal.
In other words, the Springboks delivered a typically forceful, no-frills performance which forced opportunities for Steyn to knock over the shots at goal.
This no-frills game, a Springboks style based on the courage of their restrictions and backed by a powerful, hard-working pack, was much too forceful for the raw Pumas to keep up with.
But it is a game that, in my opinion, will not take the Springboks much further up the ladder as the third best team in the world. The problem with the style is that it is based on Steyn kicking goals and when he is not doing this, kicking away the ball to create pressure and field position for further kicks at goal.
This is the Bulls game. And it is no surprise that the Springboks coach is Heyneke Meyer, the man who devised this game and brought it to perfection in the days of Victor Matfield dominating the lineout so totally that kicking away ball and forcing lineouts made all the sense in the world. The days of the Matfield dominance in the lineout are well and truly gone, however.
Meyer went out of his way after the Test against the Pumas to praise Steyn, “I had the feeling he was going to produce the good against Argentina.” This is a reference to the fact that in the Tests against England earlier this season, Steyn missed 12 out of 20 shots at goal.
In my opinion, a side that kicks the ball away as much as the Springboks (and the Bulls do) needs to be 20 points better than its opponents to win by 10 points. The reason for this is that teams in the last few years , even the Pumas, can hold on to the ball for much longer periods than they could when the Bulls were at their almost unbeatable peak and when the Springboks won the 2007 Rugby World Cup tournament.
Referees are now far more diligent about chasers taking out the catchers in the air than they were five or six years ago. They police the offside law against the kicking side more diligently. And the catchers are getting more rights to set the ball in a ruck after they’ve caught than they were back in 2007. Then, tacklers were allowed to maintain their tackle and if the catcher did not release, he was penalised. Hence Percy Montgomery’s dominate penalty kicking performance in the 2007 Rugby World Cup tournament.
I don’t think it is an accident that the Wallabies have defeated the Springboks in their last four Tests, and memorably in the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final. The Springboks had all the ball that day but could not do much with it.
Hence Spiro’s First Law of Rugby in 2012: Teams can’t score points giving away the ball to their opponents.
Steyn is a terrific goal-kicker and a generally smart and accurate punter of the ball. But he stands so deep in the pocket and passes with such a lack of finesse that he is incapable of lighting up a backline the way that, say, Carter did with the two set move tries the All Blacks scored against the Wallabies in Sydney.
If Meyer feels he has to have him in the Springboks because of his goal-kicking, I reckon he should be played at fullback.
The Springboks need Rian Pienaar at halfback for the variety and excellent of his passing, kicking and running. They need a fly half who stands flat (Patrick Lambie?) and forces the backline to run on to the ball. They need more pace somewhere in the centres to provide the chances for their extremely fast wingers.
The 2012 Super Rugby tournament revealed a number of potential Springboks who could light up the back line if they were given a chance.
But somehow I don’t believe Meyer has it in him to dare to create a great side. He has a style of rugby he coaches that he is comfortable with, and the players are comfortable with.
Before supporters of the Springboks jump on to me for talking down their team, let me say that the Springboks will be a tough team for the Wallabies and All Blacks to defeat, especially when they are playing at home.
What I am saying really is that if they want to consistently defeat the All Blacks, especially, the Springboks have to get out of their comfort zone and dare to be a great side. They can’t even attempt to do this, in my opinion, with Steyn playing at number 10.
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.