Finding new ways to lose at Newlands: A rivalry resurrected

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru

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    South Africa’s bid to host a second Rugby World Cup omits its spiritual home – the cramped, creaky, cacophonous old stadium called Newlands.

    Every space is compacted in this boxy patchwork place. From the horrific toilets and halls, to the player’s cloakrooms and rudimentary bars. The egress from the train past the pungent brewery lingers from the south or, as we chose, a beer-laden stroll down from Forester’s Arms or Barristers along the tiny Liesbeek River.

    That’s the nine-kilometre stream cutting from Skeleton Gorge on the rump of Table Mountain, to Table Bay, through both the poshest and sketchiest of districts.

    If you walk a while, you will find yourself in the company of Cape Crusaders, whose rugby patron saint is Sonny Bill Williams. The ratio of black to green in the Cape can seem equal at times, but once inside the friendly confines of the worlds second oldest big rugby park, it’s more clearly a four-to-one Bok tribal gathering.

    Strictly speaking, we were attending the penultimate match in a tournament already won, but in reality we were just going to a Test match against the All Blacks. The mood among Bok fans was tremulous, because our internal questions were whether we were still the Kiwis’ greatest rival. That, or whether the recent willingness to let them score 57 points on us and not even fire a shot in retaliation, had doomed the Old Enemy narrative.

    In typical Saffa fashion, this fear was expressed in anger. Anger at native son Allister Coetzee, who built a defensive juggernaut at the Stormers for many years typified by rugged tackling, superb scrummaging, clever and accurate kicking, and an unassailable lineout.

    Where were those bedrock skills in this Bokling side? It took the All Blacks all of fifteen minutes in Albany to completely break down the Springbok defence, and then they rained clown tries down on the hapless, Springboks, who seemed to give up.

    Courtnall Skosan South Africa Rugby Union Springboks 2017

    (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

    Anger also spewed preemptively on failed Stormer Elton Jantjies, whose shuffling pivot moves appear slower and slower, closing gaps for his centre pairing, who are reduced to battering rams, robbing the gasmen on the wings from any lane in which to show speed and skill.

    But it was just fear. Will we be humiliated or just embarrassed? How far are we behind?

    During perestroika, a delegation of Soviet automaker bureaucrats were allowed to tour a Japanese miracle car plant. All day the Russian engineers saw wonders of robotics and logistical brilliance. Trained never to betray inferiority, they merely stared, as if it was nothing to see such clear superiority.

    At the end, seeing a chance to speak privately, the head Soviet asked his Japanese opposite number: ‘Tell me honestly. How far are we behind? Five years? Ten?’

    The Japanese director said: ‘Forever. You are forever behind.’

    Are we doomed to chase All Black yesteryears? Was 2009 the last dying whimper of competitiveness? Are we just beginning the beginning of the end? How far are we behind? Forever? Is 57 the new 30 and 0 the new 27?

    Fortified by early morning runs, absurd wagers, beer and spirits, and vinegar-drowned chips to mute the sour smell of the river, the stadium, and the brewery, we settled into our seats as if forewarned by pilots of extreme turbulence.

    The warmups were similar by both squads, who were almost identical in size and build, now. Long gone is any notion of ‘huge’ Boks playing normal-sized All Blacks.

    Liam Squire is the same size as Pieter-Steph du Toit, all the locks on the field are within an inch of the same height, the visitors have one big centre, whippet halves, and a few mites; about the same as the home team.

    The only mismatch appeared to be at hooker, where Malcolm Marx strides as if a statue in Vienna, while Dane Coles is modest in size.

    The drills are similar now; compared even to my description of the 2015 semifinal between these teams (and doesn’t that 18-20 match seem like a million years ago).

    However, surly Jantjies seems to be lazy even pre-match.

    The match in Cape Town did not start differently from Albany: hammer and tongs, thunder and lightning, assault and battery.

    The difference was it took 79 minutes for the All Blacks (29 minutes into the second half after a 50-minute first half) to actually break down the Bok defence and score a try. Oh, and the Boks only committed four handling errors. Handre Pollard made a telling cameo. And there was this man Marx.

    The first half saw both sides soak up pressure from the other, defuse raids with brutal tackling and turnovers, and the classic haymakers of a heavyweight bout. This time, All Black turnovers won did not automatically lead to a Raymond Rhule missed tackle and a swan dive over the line by a jubilant Kiwi flyer.

    For one bright shining day (or maybe more?) the Boks were back to being Bokke.

    Heavy, horrible and rawboned defence; scrambling after a break, immovable at times, and giving nothing easy.

    Is anyone actually sure Ireland or England would have been able to score a try against the Boks in this mood?

    Steve Hansen likened it to stopping barrels rolling downhill at you.

    The bulldozers were Pieter-Steph du Toit and his quick pick-and-go style (20 carries); flame-haired Steven Kitshoff (15 strong carries and two superlative catches, a one-handed grab and a bootlace save) after the All Blacks tried to bully him early; a passionate Eben Etzebeth who broke five tackles during his 14 savage runs; and Marx, who played one of the most effective tests by a hooker in history, after looking fragile mentally in Albany at lineout time.

    Both teams pinched one lineout a piece, so this was not the story this time. It was Bok Force Trauma with box kicks, pillars knocked down, smashmouth rugby, and relentlessness.

    If only the home side had scrummed better, substituted better, and kicked better, a victory seemed on the cards. All three of those areas are ‘controllable’ and the Boks should rue the way they lost the day.

    The Boks survived the worst of it though: magic passes by Nehe Milner-Skudder, a muffed restart, the freakish Reiko Ioane crossing the chalk but not scoring (courtesy of a very good defensive effort by the still-unconvincing Jesse Kriel at 13), strangely inaccurate ruck cleaning by Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, and Dean Coles as well as Jantjies gave up a try on a platter.

    It was 3-3 and eight minutes before halftime. In the three minutes prior to Jantjies trying to kick a ball through Beauden Barrett’s elbow, the Boks had constructed a decent maul at their own ten-metre line, built a few phases to explore the seams, used Etzebeth, du Toit, and Marx and made good progress. Francois Louw then reclaimed one of the only well-weighted box kicks, spilled by Damian McKenzie, and reset with workhorse Jan Serfontein.

    Brodie Retallick New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks 2017

    (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    But then Jantjies, with plenty of space and time, and Kriel and unused Dillyn Leyds open to his right, on the Boks’ own 42 metre line, stab-kicked the ball into Barrett’s arm. Barrett did not even jump. The ball hit him in the elbow or thereabouts.

    There were about twelve different things Jantjies could have done in that situation, and eleven were fine. Feint the kick, take the tackle, skip pass, hoist a skyball with Siya Kolisi and Leyds perfectly placed to chase, dummy-kick, cut inside back to his forwards who were wildly rampant, pass normally to Kriel, or just sit down.

    But he tried to kick the ball through Barrett’s elbow.

    After a sequence of bobbles, during which Jantjies began jogging back and failed to beat Kolisi or the worlds slowest scrumhalf back to try and prevent the consequence of his rugby crime, Ryan ‘Crotchy’ Crotty ‘dotted down.’ Fair enough; at the ground, I saw it as a try all day, and only my Kiwi mates texting me made me question it. For me, it was a classic Jantjies brain freeze, thinking he had more time than he did; the prince of charge-downs.

    All credit to the Bok pack in shaking off this waste of great ball by a silly flyhalf: Cane and Liam Squire continued to be blown off the ball, Marx kept finding his jumpers and running around like he owned the place, and Etzebeth prolonged the first half, along with Macca, and nobody could say the home team looked less fresh than the ultra-fit visitors.

    Interestingly, Lood de Jager ran the lineout with Marx better than fellow Lion, Franco Mostert had, and Etzebeth seemed to partner with de Jager better in cleaning rucks. They were an insanely physical ‘bracket.’

    But the pack also had to overcome the planking problems of Ruan Dreyer, picked by stubborn coach Coetzee despite leading Super Rugby in scrum penalties (in limited minutes, as he is not even the Lions’ No.1 tighthead) and the availability of the most dominant tighthead in Super Rugby in 2017, hometown behemoth 133 kg Wilco Louw.

    Only scrum coach Matt Proudfoot could explain why the Boks negated one clear advantage – the All Blacks are also scraping the bottom of their loosehead bottle with Kane Hames, at scrum time, at least.

    Dreyer planked, as he did against Australia, and was pinged three times. He could have been penalised more. South Africa was only whistled five times on the day. Wilco Louw came on and the scrum was a Bok weapon the rest of the day. I will say no more.

    The Boks overcame Dreyer’s planking and Jantjies’ belief in a porous BBBBB arm, to score an 18-phase try early in the second half.

    Life was good at Newlands.

    The Boks were keeping ball in hand, using the big boys, and keeping the game out of their brittle halves’ hands. Until the 60th minute, when Cronje, who is a guy everyone can love and support but is a good club level halfback and nothing more, threw a loose pass at poor Skosan’s shoulder, scooped up by speed merchant Ioane, who showboated a bit on his try, and will probably be sorted by Kieran Read and the other seniors.

    At 10-15, with Barrett gone, and an obviously well-working Bok plan on the day, I allowed myself to indulge in some belief.

    My neighbour and I had a wager on the outcome; he is a lifelong fan of the All Blacks and the Crusaders.

    When Handre Pollard trotted on with fifteen to go, I bellowed like a gorilla, and punched my treasonous nemesis neighbour four or five times.

    “We’re going to take it now. Elton off our back. Go boy. Take it Pollard.”

    A star from the Western Cape, Pollard took it hard to the line. The backline finally looked dangerous. A half-break here and there, and then that moment of magic Pollard almost always creates.

    A real break, a perfect offload to steaming Marx, who drew the last defender and put a perfect pass in the surprisingly quick Jean-Luc du Preez .

    “Upset, upset, upset,” I chanted into my neighbour’s disloyal ear.

    But then, one too many box kicks that got out of the box. A beautiful fend by David Havili on my hero Handre, a Sonny Bill Williams-like offload to cheeky Macca, who outdid Ioane on his Ashtonesque try, having bamboozled the just-on Damian de Allende.

    That was the first time the All Blacks broke the cover defence.

    It’s a good thing Lima Sopoaga converted Macca’s try, because the fullback could have easily rounded to go under the posts, instead of planting a one-handed Nadia Comenici touchdown out wide.

    Lima Sopoaga for the Highlanders

    (Photo: John Youngs photography)

    On the whole, the Boks had broken down the All Blacks’ defence more often than vice versa, but poor kicking, Dreyer’s scrum woes, and Elton’s decision to kick through Barrett’s corporeal body gave the ruthless world champions just the chances needed.

    For some reason, de Allende was on. Why? Serfontein had been the best Bok back. He’s a clever defender, and underrated on attack. The undercooked de Allende was the matador to the Macca bull, and then decided to give Sapoaga a do-over on his missed drop goal attempt.

    The almost unbelievably good Marx was smart enough to score quickly, hand the ball to Jantjies, who did well to convert the maul try with two minutes to go, and a one-point game in the balance, but it’s a tall order to march all the way, especially with a referee who let the breakdown be wild.

    Matt Todd was very good on the day, as were the All Blacks’ back three, allied to a moment of brilliance, and it was done and dusted.

    I saw a video from the excellent All Blacks’ PR arm, with Anton Lienert-Brown interviewing his mates, as the Boks and All Blacks share a beer in blazers.

    Read and Etzebeth seemed to be having a good long laugh, but Dreyer was not. Macca and Ioane admitted fault in their tries and we will probably see two-handed dot-downs from now on.

    A battered Cane, a smiling Hansen, a relieved Coetzee and a great sense of comraderie all the way around.

    The rivalry has some oxygen, yet. But for it to resume, really, it isn’t enough for South Africa to do what Meyer did (play great against the Kiwis, but lose to Japan and too often to others). The Boks need to bully Ireland, continue to beat England, dominate the other Celts, win at home against Australia, and start to win close ones against the best.

    The stadium did not clear quickly. Nobody wanted to leave.

    Can we call each other rivals, yet? Maybe not. But the whole rugby world saw what a Bok team with only 300 or so caps, a jittery flyhalf, a glacier-like scrumhalf, and a tighthead who cannot scrum, can do to the All Blacks.

    Maybe it’s another false dawn, and maybe the only way to really get back is to fire Coetzee sooner than later, but he saved his job again, and the quota is real, so if Pollard is to resume his Test career as the Bok field general, Rudy Paige will need to replace Cronje, and perhaps the rugged pilfer king Lukhanyo Am should take over from Kriel at 13, with Warrick Gelant getting a look at the fullback position.

    Here’s hoping the rivalry can re-emerge.

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    The Crowd Says (111)

    • October 12th 2017 @ 2:46am
      Luke Ringland said | October 12th 2017 @ 2:46am | ! Report

      Nice article Harry. I must say I was reluctant to watch it on replay, knowing the result, and feeling empathetically the heartbreak of any team that “almost” beats the ABs. But I did watch it, and I’m glad, if only for some of those performances in the Bok pack. The physicality was incredible.

      I’m with you on poor old Elton and the scrum. With so many massive units running around South Africa, there’s no excuse for poor scrum. And as for Jantjies, it is baffling that he keeps getting picked. At test level he reminds me of Beale at fly-half, all be it one who can’t threaten the line as easily. Everything he does seems so telegraphed. People whinge about Foley, but at least he has ups and downs at test level; Jantjies seems to have at best oks and downs.

      But the issue doesn’t seem to be just him. The halfback is also quite predictable, in fact, everything in the backline seems predictable. In the same way that Australia needs to find maybe 1-2 more top class forwards to be a week in, week out challenger to the top sides (England, New Zealand), so must South Africa find a couple more backs, and FFS pick Pollard at 10.

      • Roar Guru

        October 12th 2017 @ 9:04am
        Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Yes. Nice to see Pollard back. Only 23. Not nice to see Lambie off to France. And as much as SA fans love to boo Ruan Pienaar, I think his worst pass is better than Ross Cronje’s best one, and as for kicking, there’s still not a better kicking 9.

        As for dangerous backs who can tackle: Mapimpi, Combrinck (sadly, injured after being overlooked for Rhule), Am, Nkosi, and Gelant all worth looking at on EOYT.

    • Roar Guru

      October 12th 2017 @ 2:54am
      The Neutral View From Sweden said | October 12th 2017 @ 2:54am | ! Report

      I salute you, Harry!

      Spectacular column/match report/essay.

      I have read 30 plus texts about this amazing Test match, but none of them caught the magic like you have.

      The big cloud on the sky to me is if it possible to play like the Boks did from a cold start or do they need to be humiliated first to able to tap into the well of true grit?

      • Roar Guru

        October 12th 2017 @ 3:27am
        Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:27am | ! Report

        Thanks, Viking.

        It’s a brutal way to play; but it works.

        Next step is to add Mapimpi and Gelant and stop the Elton failed experiment.

    • Roar Guru

      October 12th 2017 @ 2:58am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | October 12th 2017 @ 2:58am | ! Report

      The Good
      Kitshoff, Marx, Etzebeth, De Jager, Pieter Steph du Toit, Kolisi, Wilco Louw, Mostert, du Preez, Serfontein, Pollard.

      The bad

      The Lazy
      Skosaan, Jantjies.

      Excellent recap of what was a very good test Harry. I think we can agree that this is the way we want Springbok rugby to be played. Physical, with intent, at high speed and with skill.

      What we have to acknowledge is it will be impossible to lift yourself like that every week. Unless of course you have a squad big enough to cover depth in every position and ensure those players are of i ternational caliber.

      That is where the problem comes in. If we are really honest how many players would be of high quality internationals that could walk into most test sides?

      Beast and Kitshoff
      Pieter steph, eben, mostert, de jager
      Du Preez, Kolisi, Kriel, Whiteley
      Serfontein, Janse van Rensburg

      When you’re honest about it, then it doesn’t look that good yet

      • Roar Guru

        October 12th 2017 @ 3:20am
        Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:20am | ! Report

        Where did our scrumhalves disappear to; the land of Craven, Joost, FdP?

        I wish Kolbe had learned 9…

        • October 13th 2017 @ 2:09am
          hopalong said | October 13th 2017 @ 2:09am | ! Report

          Great article Harry.
          Your words fall easily on the “minds ear” (an invented concept which masks a lack of vocabulary)
          An enormous amount of adrenalin contributed to our performance.
          It cannot possibly be sustained and our salvation lies in the pride of a winning habit..Like AB,s
          Thought that Pollard was good.
          I.M.O. Kolisi was invisible.

          • Roar Guru

            October 13th 2017 @ 2:41am
            Harry Jones said | October 13th 2017 @ 2:41am | ! Report

            Kolisi may be one of those players who you need in a squad, but cannot lift for the biggest games. Good to have against ARG, FR, Scotland, Italy.

            • October 14th 2017 @ 2:00am
              Taylorman said | October 14th 2017 @ 2:00am | ! Report

              He was excellent earlier, he just looks tired now, timed his run too early.

              • Roar Guru

                October 14th 2017 @ 2:35am
                Harry Jones said | October 14th 2017 @ 2:35am | ! Report

                Agree. And he gets tired within games, too.

        • October 13th 2017 @ 4:01pm
          DavSA said | October 13th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

          Add Dawie De Villiers and Garth Wright .

      • October 12th 2017 @ 8:31am
        Fionn said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

        If the Springboks play like against every team then I think they’d beat England fairly comfortably and be the number 2 team in the world. It was probably the best I’ve seen the Boks since 2013 (or at least that win over the All Blacks in 2014).

        Unfortunately, however, teams are often capable of lifting for one off games against the All Blacks but are unable to recreate their form. For example, the Wallabies in Dunedin 2017, England 2012, Ireland in 2016 (Ireland went on to almost lose to Australia in a really close game that either team could win, and then had some very average performances in the 6N).

        I hope the Boks can show it again and again on the EOYT, but I will wait to see it before I believe it.

        Vermuelen and even Whiteley and Franco Louw are other class players that would make almost all teams in the world. If Coetzee wanted them then le Roux, Bismarck and Frans Steyn (at a minimum) would be making most teams.

        • October 12th 2017 @ 8:52am
          P2R2 said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:52am | ! Report

          I find myself in agreeance with you Fionn…a la….teams often lift for one off games against the ABs but are unable to recreate their form….well stated – I guess the proof in the pudding will be the EYOT….if they can play like that – they can win them all…but CAN is the BIG THING…along with the IF…

        • Roar Guru

          October 12th 2017 @ 9:06am
          Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:06am | ! Report

          I am sure Frans Steyn would have added value, even from the bench, during the RC.

          Thor would have LOVED the Newlands test, but really did need body recuperation.

          We missed WW a lot during the OZ tests… Cassiem is not up to it.

          • October 12th 2017 @ 9:14am
            Fionn said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:14am | ! Report

            Harry, WW and Vermuelen makes it difficult to make an ideal back-row, doesn’t it?

            I would imagine your best back-row from a playing perspective would be 6. Koliis, 7. Kriel, 8. Vermuelen, 20. Whiteley/JL du Preez (yes, I know you guys use 6 and 7 the other way, but I am just thinking from an Aussie perspective).

            However, given what Whiteley brings in the line out and in terms of leadership would this be your strongest?

            6. Whiteley, 7. Kriel, 8. Vermuelen, 20. Kolisi? I’m not sure if Whiteley is fast enough to play 6, but it just seems madness to have a fit Vermuelen and not to play him. A fully fit Vermuelen is one of the 2-3 best number 8s in the world, and arguably the best given Read’s form in 2017.

            • Roar Guru

              October 12th 2017 @ 9:20am
              Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:20am | ! Report

              Fionn, actually, WW is only an 8, a specialist 8, so I would not use him at 6. Thor, on the other hand, has played (OZ) 6 almost half his career. He’s a perfect 6, really, because he packs a real wallop, can jump or steal in LO without lifters, and pilfers. I really like what I see from JL du P, but he seems brilliant as a sub, at the moment. Kolisi can be very good, but I think his size makes him a 7, and he has never quite learned to get over the ball in the grim moments.

              So, I’d like to see 6. Thor, 7 Kriel, 8. WW, 20. JL du P or Kolisi depending on oppo, and if Kriel out, Kolisi at 7 if against teams like OZ (not NZ–there I’d use Flo at openside, bc he negates Cane).

              • October 12th 2017 @ 9:29am
                Fionn said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

                Interesting, I wasn’t aware about Vermuelen playing 6 (something I should have been aware of, but in fairness, I didn’t really follow rugby so closely from 2012-14 😛 ).

                That seriously looks like the best back-row in the world, in my opinion.

              • October 13th 2017 @ 5:46am
                George said | October 13th 2017 @ 5:46am | ! Report

                I would love to see Marcel Coetzee back in the green and gold.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 3:07am
      John said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:07am | ! Report

      I enjoyed this. Might disagree with some facts (Dean Coles?) but, honestly, who cares. I just enjoyed reading it – 14 savage runs; forever behind. What I’d give to see Bismarck against Malcolm at a high level

      We’re all struggling to beat them. Its a tribute to their systems and passion, but they are beatable.

      • Roar Guru

        October 12th 2017 @ 3:27am
        Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:27am | ! Report

        Thanks, man. Sorry about Coles.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 8:54am
        P2R2 said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:54am | ! Report

        for heavens sake…will be people get over this … but they are beatable….every team is beatable…the ABs have NEVER said they are NOT BEATABLE ….but it takes a good team effort to do that….and the ABs will always do enough to win…hence their longevity and class….

        • Roar Guru

          October 12th 2017 @ 9:21am
          Harry Jones said | October 12th 2017 @ 9:21am | ! Report

          One way to beat ABs is make them make 200+ tackles. Boks did that. But then you have to avoid silly late contact with a drop goal kicker and don’t stab kick into BBBBB’s elbow with acres of space outside.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 3:25am
      FunBus said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:25am | ! Report

      I think this was one that really got away from the Boks. For me the key moment was the thrown interception in the 2nd half when the

    • October 12th 2017 @ 3:25am
      FunBus said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:25am | ! Report

      I think this was one that really got away from the Boks. For me the key moment was the thrown interception in the 2nd half when the

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