Despite the gloom and doom surrounding South Africa’s “conservative” or “boring” game plan, call it what you will – as rugby fans we were treated to one hell of a Test match last Saturday to mark the 100th encounter between New Zealand and South Africa. There is no denying that New Zealand had a rather off day at the office and whether or not that was a direct result of South Africa’s controversial playing style remains hotly contested by fans and pundits in both camps. South Africa’s physicality was as always immense, and Captain Siya Kolisi really did lead from the front in delivering it to New Zealand. Nevertheless, as the game wore on and South Africa seemed to have the edge we like many were left speechless at the number of times the Springboks kicked away valuable possession and poorly to boot (excuse the pun). As a result, you can’t help feeling that they simply got lucky towards the end that the scoreline wasn’t larger in favor of New Zealand. It was a narrow loss agreed but one that could have been potentially embarrassing had New Zealand brought their A game.
What you can’t take away is the fact that it was South Africa’s third consecutive loss this tournament, and they are now in danger of having to content themselves with a third place finish. We don’t hold much to the fact that they have lost the number one spot in the World Rankings, as they didn’t have to do much to keep it in the first place considering that they took almost two years off from International Rugby. To be honest the World Rankings don’t really mean much in our opinion – it’s just a numbers and statistics exercise. With the Coaching staff consistently defending a game plan that the rest of the world is rapidly starting to figure out, it doesn’t look like South Africa are going to address a seemingly inevitable slide down the global pecking order any time soon. Are they a bad team bereft of talent? Absolutely not, and many of their problems are a relatively easy fix with the right mindset in the Coaching box. They may even still win the odd big game with this mindset, but they won’t be doing it consistently. South Africa had the physical parity and momentum in the last five minutes of the game last Saturday to back themselves and keep the ball in hand and go on to win the match. Instead they chose to pursue an utterly aimless, ineffective and poorly executed kicking game which ultimately cost them the contest.
As for New Zealand, they were not at their best last weekend by a considerable margin. We will agree that some of that was caused by the relentless pressure they were under from South Africa and an inability to effectively deal with the constant aerial assault favored by the Springboks. However, one thing the All Blacks do better than any other team on the planet is fix the things that didn’t work for them the previous weekend. This is not a team that is stuck in its ways. They adapt and restructure themselves quicker and more effectively than any International side out there. New Zealand will definitely have some tricks up their sleeves on Saturday, but judging from the press statements coming out of the Springbok camp, we’re not convinced that South Africa have their own set of surprises in store.
If South Africa want to ensure possession then talk to this man
Does this sound familiar? Hooker Bongi Mbonambi makes a good throw into the lineout. One of the big second rowers, most likely Lood de Jager makes a fine catch, Mbonambi rushes to the back of the maul, South Africa start rolling forward and then scrum half Faf de Klerk takes the ball and kicks it away. All that hard work for very little gain. South Africa could be doing so much more with Mbonambi’s lineout work. He’s already proven that once he has the ball it’s very difficult to wrestle it off him, either when he’s attached to the back of a rolling maul or breaking loose. With a pod of his bruising forwards around him, Mbonambi and his colleagues could be such an effective weapon if they were just allowed to hang onto the ball. We lost count of how many times we threw things at the TV last week as all that good work went to waste time and time again as the ball was kicked away to little or no gain. Enough said, just let Mbonambi and his replacement Marx along with that admirable Springbok forward pack make the hard yards and create the opportunities that South Africa says its physicality can supposedly guarantee them – please!!!
A player who we feel has been unfairly criticized and not allowed to realize his potential
As regular readers of this blog know we’re big fans of South African back rower Kwagga Smith. He’s at his best when South Africa use him as one of those roving wing forwards that Springbok sides of old used to excel at producing. In South Africa’s current game plan, Smith is a bit of a fish out of water and the fault is not his own. He was devastatingly effective as a sevens player and took those core skills and made them work for the Lions in Super Rugby. Remember when he almost outran winger Waisake Naholo in that famous Barbarians game against New Zealand in 2017? This is a very good player whose talents are just not being realized as a result of South Africa’s current game plan. Get Kwagga spooled up and South Africa would not be accused of playing “boring” rugby. The experiments with him at number eight were a waste of his talents as he’s happiest as a roving openside flanker. His defensive work is solid but he excels at capitalizing on spilled and loose ball. If South Africa can use their physical strengths to allow Smith such opportunities we could be in for a rather exciting afternoon.
He may not be Pieter-Steph Du Toit but he is one of South Africa’s hardest grafting players
When it comes to sheer effort and a never say die attitude there are few players that embody these qualities better than Springbok utility forward Franco Mostert. He is equally at home in the second and back rows, and his work rate is exemplary. Invariably sporting multiple bandages by the end of a game, he is a player who constantly puts his body on the line for his colleagues. We’ve always felt he is one of South Africa’s most underrated assets. Saturday’s match sees him start on the bench, but given his ability across the park he’ll be a great counter to any of the New Zealand offerings either in the starting fifteen or off the replacements bench. This is a player who can produce those big game efforts when you need them most, so expect him to be called into the fray with plenty of time still left on the clock. We have a hunch that his talents will most likely be called upon in the second row, but if the pack needs to be shuffled as the game unfolds Mostert is a great option to have.
Ian Foster’s enviable dilemma
We’d hazard a guess and say that, despite All Black Coach Ian Foster’s embarrassment of riches in the fly half department, he’s settled on Richie Mo’unga as his first choice fly half. Mo’unga has looked the sharper playmaker of the two since the World Cup and there is no denying that his goal kicking accuracy tends to be much more of a bankable commodity than Barrett’s. Barrett’s play style does suit certain opponents better as he is a slightly more direct player in space than Mo’unga, but his real strength is that unlike Mo’unga he can alternate effortlessly between the fullback and half back role. On Saturday, though Foster has preferred Barrett as his first choice fly half with Mo’unga as the understudy. The competition between these two for securing that number 10 jersey leading up to the World Cup will be fierce and Saturday will be a prime case in point, as amicable as their on field partnership appears to be. Barrett will just have to hope that he brings his goalkicking boots with him, as if not the argument could be done and dusted sooner than expected.
With this guy on the field New Zealand are a different beast
While there has been a great deal of talk about New Zealand centre David Havili’s return to the All Black fold since his injury, we feel that the real sensation of the center channels for New Zealand is being slightly overlooked in the form of Anton-Lienert-Brown. If you look at recent history Lienert-Brown has had to live in the shadow of his peers often at New Zealand’s expense. His partnership with Ryan Crotty was devastating but he was often overlooked in favor of Sonny Bill Williams, who we always felt was slightly over rated in the latter stages of his career. However, in the last year he has clearly made the 13 jersey his own. A highly creative center who excels at breaking the gain line and creating space out wide for New Zealand’s back line to thrive on, Lienert-Brown will be more than a match for the slightly more predictable Damian de Allende of South Africa. Defensively sound, but having a turn of pace similar to the great Conrad Smith, keeping him in check will be one of South Africa’s biggest problems on Saturday, and all the more reason for them to avoid handing him possession by constantly kicking the ball away.
While it is hard to argue against New Zealand wrapping up the Rugby Championship equivalent of a Grand Slam on Saturday in their second Test against the Springboks, we are still confident that another epic match worthy of the history between these two famous rivals is in the making. Perhaps the bluster by the South African Coaching staff and players about the integrity of their game plan really is all smoke and mirrors and something radically different is in store, but we somehow doubt it. We haven’t seen any evidence of it to date, and you don’t completely overhaul a team’s so called DNA in the space of a mere six days. Either way we can’t wait for proceedings to begin, and just hope that this time we aren’t hurling things at our TV screens as we watch a quality South African side squander hard earned possession once more. Onwards and upwards for both sides!!!