Older readers will recall the 1960s science fiction series Lost in Space, in which the Robinson family, at the hand of the evil Dr Zachary Smith, found themselves careering off course into the depths of space.
A famous catch-cry from the show was, “Danger, Will Robinson”, where the spaceship’s robot would frantically warn the family’s young son of impending harm. If only South Africa had the services of such a prescient robot and recognised the importance of space, they may have been spared the humiliation of their 30-17 defeat against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
Keen to avoid an arm-wrestle and for their backs to avoid the Springboks umbrella defence, the Wallabies sought space and played directly to it. From the get-go Samu Kerevi found gaps around the edges, and Nic White, smartly and at pace, shifted the point of the attack.
Thirteen minutes in, Faf de Klerk begged referee Matthew Carley for a yellow card and was duly obliged. More direct play followed, gold runners punching into holes, before Len Ikitau slipped the once more disappointing Handre Pollard for the opening score.
Ten minutes later the home side were in again. Kerevi expertly tidied up some rubbish lineout ball, Taniela Tupou made the telling bust and the ball was cleverly worked into – there’s that word again – space for Ikitau to double his tally.
The Springboks, on the other hand, seemed clueless when offered space to operate in. At the risk of one too many TV and film metaphors, they were Steve Carrell’s 40-year-old Virgin – vaguely aware of an opportunity at their fingertips to do something fruitful and pleasurable but with no real idea of how to go about it.
With the Wallabies failing to secure the high ball, offering up too many cheap penalties, and with Pollard rediscovering his smooth, controlled draw off the tee, the Springboks eased their way back into the contest and, in the 32nd minute, came agonisingly close to having matters handed to them on a plate.
By now everybody knows the Lachie Swinton story. Coach Dave Rennie values his physical presence and aggression, but until Swinton learns to lower his sights and pick his moments better, he remains a ticking time bomb. His collision with Duane Vermeulen was reckless and unnecessary – head-to-head contact in these circumstances is not deemed accidental – but it was never the red-card offence that referee Carley seemed keen to rule it as.
Overly intrusive TMOs remain a blight on the game, but in this case, luckily for the Wallabies, Brett Cronan was able to talk Carley around and have the sanction downgraded.
Please bear with me repeating myself, but in the matter of determining the point of high contact, World Rugby continuing to insist that referees, standing in the middle of a rugby pitch in the heat of battle, looking up at grainy, one-dimensional images on a big screen, are best placed to act as investigating officer, prosecutor, judge and jury is nothing short of madness.
Red cards should be reserved for egregious and obvious acts of dangerous foul play and should apply for the whole match. Any act that requires a microscope or multiple replays to try to determine what happened by definition meets a different threshold; a yellow card and an automatic post-match review, when forensic assessment can be made using the appropriate equipment and suspensions applied, all without holding the game up or risking a poor match-defining on-field decision.
The high mark for the visitors came immediately after halftime. There was a palpable lift in energy, and De Klerk’s nudge through for Lukhanyo Am to score was delightfully executed.
But it never truly felt sustainable, and it wasn’t. For a second time the Wallabies blew over the Springboks in an assertive counter-ruck, and Reece Hodge redeemed himself for some woeful catching with an inspired kick and chase.
It sparked the moment of the match: Michael Hooper, at the base of a ruck, instantly recognising the space wide and left, shifting the ball with purpose, along with skilful contributions by Angus Bell and Tupou, for Marika Koroibete to coast in for the go-ahead try.
A few minutes later the dose was repeated, Hodge this time claiming a ruck steal and the ball again shifted into space, where a Pete Samu bust was backed up by great support play and a clinical finish.
With the game as good as decided, further triumph ensued for the home side. Finishing the match on defence, they continued to shut down the Springboks’ lineout maul and neuter their scrum, comfortably holding them at bay until the final whistle.
Albeit with Quade Cooper again impressively underplaying his hand and tackling stoutly, and with strong contributions from a number of players, the Wallabies win was built around three pillars: Tupou’s gargantuan effort to almost go the distance, Kerevi’s ever-present threat and Hooper’s unbridled energy and presence on both sides of the ball.
While the normal caveats around progress being non-linear remain, that’s a sound foundation on which to build a team that will hold Australian rugby in good stead over the next few years. Not to mention vindication for those who could see past the scoreboard in the recent All Blacks series and identify where progress was being made.
So how has South African rugby, only weeks after basking in the glory of winning rugby’s heavyweight arm-wrestle against the Lions, been so rapidly reduced to what resembles an apparently clueless and impotent mob of lost sheep?
Almost certainly things won’t be as bad as they appear on the surface. But what is clear is that their much-vaunted lock and loose forward depth is not as deep as first thought. Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Pieter-Steph du Toit – particularly Du Toit – are huge outs.
Albeit that the South African way of numbering the loose forwards is at odds with convention – the sight of Franco Mostert lumbering around Suncorp Stadium with No. 7 on his back speaks to a different time and place, a planet that the Robinson family perhaps might have visited in the 1960s.
For a side intent on grinding down their opposition in a battle of attrition, the Boks are short of dynamic ball runners. And while their contestable kick strategy paid dividends in terms of forcing Wallabies errors and returning them possession, with most of those contests occurring near halfway and hard up against the touchline, there was still the matter of what to do with the ball after it was won back.
With Rennie correctly recognising the Boks’ unwillingness to play from their own half, the Wallabies’ kickers increasingly didn’t even try to find grass. Simply hoofing it downfield was enough knowing that Willie Le Roux was unlikely to burn them on the counterattack.
Gone also in what seems an instant is the Springboks defensive wall of steel. Perhaps it was only ever an illusion anyway – perhaps the Lions didn’t breach it not because it wasn’t possible but because they lacked the ambition to even try to do so.
Forty missed tackles in two matches against the Wallabies are too many to be put down to poor individual execution. What it speaks to instead is a failure to plan for and adapt to a different style of game played on firmer underfoot conditions than what the shifty Newlands turf allowed.
At a deeper level the Springboks appear to have fallen victim to the curse of their Achilles heel also being what made them great, albeit fleetingly. Rassie Erasmus achieved World Cup hero status by tapping into South Africa’s rugby DNA and shaping a side and method of play that authentically drew from the richest periods of their history.
But serious flaws have emerged. The style of play on offer is not one that is favoured by the way the game – Warren Gatland’s Lions aside – is being played or refereed today. It doesn’t even align with the type of rugby played in South Africa’s own Currie Cup. And because the method is so rigid, so steeped in self-belief and adherence to structure, it is also inflexible and unfit for purpose whenever the goalposts are shifted.
Further, for all of Erasmus’s exalted position in the Republic, the last few years have been too much about one man. Like a helicopter parent at a playground, not allowing his children to fall off the monkey bars and learn a few things for themselves, Erasmus stationed himself on the sideline during the Lions series and rushed onto the field at every opportunity, brandishing his game plan, micro-managing his player’s every movement.
Little wonder that when Erasmus is no longer present with the side, his talismanic energy languishing across the Indian Ocean, his inspiration diluted through a Zoom lens, players suddenly forced into thinking for themselves have been found wanting.
No doubt there will be video analysis and copious notes already on their way to coach Jacques Nienaber, a thoroughly agreeable and likeable man it must be said, but who, speaking after the match, candidly admitted to having no answers.
He’ll need to find some, and quickly. In his favour, one suspects that the nature of the occasion – the 100th Test match between South Africa and New Zealand – will serve to inspire and lift his players, and All Blacks fans expecting an easy romp might be disappointed.
But if this really is all the Springboks have, and the match is allowed to flow, it’s hard to see anything but a 60th Test win for the All Blacks, who are playing with a sharper, more disciplined focus this season.
Their 36-13 victory over Argentina was similar to their win at the Gold Coast the week before, with the Pumas looking to be on the ropes, unable to stem the tide of possession and wave of runners yet somehow scrambling superbly in defence to limit the damage.
They were helped by the All Blacks butchering opportunities through forward passes, with some of the support runners being too shallow, but with some significant inclusions to the starting 23 to be made this week, coach Ian Foster shouldn’t be too concerned by a wee bit of over-exuberance.
In fact the 20-minute period in the second half during which the Pumas made things very difficult for the All Blacks and which was crowned by a smartly worked try by Santiago Carreras and Emiliano Boffelli, will have provided the All Blacks with more benefit than any procession of tries would have done. No matter what the crowd was hoping to see.
What impressed was the confidence displayed by Hoskins Sotutu at No. 8 despite him having endured an extended spell out of favour. Other eye-catchers were the athletic young lock Tupou Vaa’i and a very assured display from inside centre Quinn Tupaea.
For their part, the Pumas were more cohesive this week and will take some positives into their two matches against the Wallabies. Carreras was a revelation at flyhalf, but the Wallabies will target the Pumas scrum and profit from it if a more solid footing cannot be found.
This will be an interesting challenge for the Wallabies, now having raised the expectations of themselves and their fans. Remember that last year’s two fixtures resulted in drawn matches.
Having now seen off the World Cup winners, another draw or loss to the Pumas would represent a major let-down and would recall another of the Robinson family robot’s famous catchphrases: “It does not compute”.