After watching the Salta game a couple of times, listening to media reports and the opinion of expert panelists, I have drawn a few conclusions regarding the Boks’ poor showing, as well as the positives to draw from it.
First I want to congratulate Argentina for their performance.
They played with heart, determination and a never-waning desire to claim their first Rugby Championship win.
Los Pumas are 12th in the IRB world rankings and it was said that they don’t belong in the Championship, but they have proven themselves to be worthy contenders, coming close against all three SANZAR nations.
Now to the Springboks.
The South African public has expressed outrage at the poor showings against both the Argentines and the second Test against Wales in Mbombela. But while the Boks played poorly, isn’t a win against the odds a positive?
I have heard many coaches say while a poor performance can never be justified, only exceptional teams with character can save a game from a deficit. This is exactly what Kiwi coach Steve Hansen said following his team’s performances against Ireland last year and England this year.
And it is a positive, not an excuse. Springbok teams of yesteryear were notorious for their inability to fight back from a deficit. The class of 2014 has done this twice now and that tells you they possess belief in their abilities.
The way they turned it up a notch with 20 minutes to go was a good sign. In a World Cup they might just face such circumstances.
Another thing that needs to be understood is that a number of players are on debut in the Rugby Championship, while others are playing out of position, and others have just come back from injury.
Handre Pollard, Lood de Jager, Damian de Allende and Cornal Hendricks are all playing in this tournament for the first time. Damian de Allende is playing in a position he hasn’t played since he was 14 and Lood de Jager a number 4 lock is playing at number 5. The centre combo of Jean de Villiers and de Allende had been injured for months and so Eben Etzebeth, who has been out for nearly a year.
These types of factors had an effect on the Boks’ performance.
An example would be de Allende’s defence out wide. Make no mistake de Allende boasts the most prominent physical defence of any centre in world rugby, but he lacks the defensive organisation a 13 requires.
His predecessor, Jaque Fourie, was the master of this. Fourie solved the Stormers’ 2011 defensive woes. You can find various videos on the internet of how Fourie stopped certain All Black tries out wide by either anticipating an offload and intercepting it against the flow of the game, or by simply shutting it down with a good tackle.
Understandably de Allende does not have this attribute to his game.
What most Bok fans suggest is either de Allende switches to 12 with de Villiers at 13 or Jan Serfontein comes in where de Villiers shifts to 13 anyway.
This would be a massive mistake.
Jean de Villiers spent most of the 2012 season at 13 and he did not do well. Then he was shifted back to 12 for the last few games and the entire 2013 season and he won the South African Player of the Year award.
So do the Boks remain with de Allende at 13 and hope he adjusts accordingly? Perhaps this is the best course of action. Damian has just come back from injury and he is playing in a foreign position, so maybe he deserves another chance. If not then Serfontein is a more than capable replacement, but then the 13 position is a conundrum yet again. Do the Boks then wait for the return of Fourie?
Moving on to the lock position troubles, and de Jager has had a stellar season so far but again he has been prominent at 4 and not 5. A month ago I promised a few South African compatriots that I would admit my mistake by saying that Matfield is not necessary.
Watching the 2013 season, which had Etzebeth at 4 and Flip van der Merwe at 5, the Springboks had a better lineout percentage than any other in the world. This led me to believe a better all-round lock would be more beneficial to the pack than a classic 5 like Matfield. This was the case in Salta. Both Etzebeth and de Jager were 4 locks and the lineouts were woeful.
So to my fellow countrymen I admit I was wrong.
That said, Bakkies Botha provided some much needed aggressiveness to the Bok pack and should Matfield take to the field I expect the Bok lineout will fare much better.
The flyhalf position will need some thought. At his best Handre Pollard can compete with the likes of Beauden Barrett, Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell and Quade Cooper, but he has done little to suggest that he is ready for Test rugby.
Again perspective is needed.
Pollard needs more experience. This can either be achieved by allowing him more chances to settle or by relegating him to the bench where he can slowly accumulate the experience he needs.
There is a tendency in Springbok rugby to call for youth and excitement, but when these player struggle in their first few games the public generally gives up on them. Indeed this is now being applied to Pollard and de Allende.
Experience brings calmness and calmness brings an open mind. Once these players adjust to Test rugby they will show their true worth. For this reason it might be wise to start Morne Steyn and let Pollard come on via the bench.
Steyn cops a lot of criticism. He is not a complete player, but he is a quality player in what he supplies.
In 2013 he was the pivot when the Boks scored the most tries that year. He was the general when the Boks scored four tries against the All Blacks at Ellis Park. It was he who provided a brilliant cut-out pass for Hendricks’ much-needed try last weekend. It was he who also provided two brilliant passes to set up Bryan Habana’s try against Wales in Durban, and Botha’s try against the World XV.
Pollard will grow to be the complete player the Boks need him to be, but Steyn can hold the fort until then. He brings a calmness to the back line that Pollard currently doesn’t.
But if Pollard continues to start it isn’t the end of the world. He might just be the spark in the game we need.
What troubles me the most was the Springboks’ depressing mood at Salta. At one point even the commentators mentioned their lousy body language. Is there something going on behind the scenes? Or was it just a bad day at the office?
The Springboks will face a hurting Wallabies side in Perth, and they should expect a backlash. Whatever troubles the Boks may have, they will have to up their game if they want to keep their title ambitions alive.