There comes a time when international teams have to front up. The Springboks have two home Test matches left in this year’s Rugby Championship to prove that they are better than their results suggest.
Next week it is New Zealand at Ellis Park, a fixture the home side conspired to lose last year in a failed attempt at reinvention. This week it is Australia at Newlands – and defeat is not an option.
Defence coach John McFarland began the week by lamenting the fact that the Springboks are the only team that has to play three successive away games in the tournament.
“We went to Argentina, which is on the opposite end of the time zone scale to Australia and New Zealand, where we travelled to after a short stop back at home. You end up spending a lot of time fighting jet lag and fatigue and it does have an impact. In that sense, no other team in the competition has to contend with what we do.”
It might be argued, however, that two narrow defeats and a somewhat fortunate win on the road had less to do with fatigue than with tactics. Some damning statistics have emerged from the first four games played by the Boks. On average, they had possession of the ball for just 13 minutes and six seconds per game, the lowest among the four competing sides.
Ordinarily it might be suggested that such a low percentage comes from poor work at the set pieces and at the rucks and mauls, but not this time. The Bok line-out has been the best in the competition and the back row of Duane Vermeulen, Marcel Coetzee and Francois Louw has dominated the tight-loose.
Kicking from hand
The real villain of the piece is the boot. According to statistics supplied by Opta Sports, the Boks kick the ball from hand an average of 33 times a match. That is way more than their opponents and more than double the average of this week’s foe: the Wallabies kick the ball from hand just 15 times a match.
The nadir came against the All Blacks in Wellington two weeks ago, when the back row expended blood, sweat and tears to turn possession over, only to see the ball kicked back over their heads. Francois Hougaard was the major culprit and it is to be hoped that coach Heyneke Meyer has spent some time with the Bulls scrumhalf this week, explaining the basic tenets of the game.
That is to assume, however, that Meyer has a problem with the stats, since comment from the camp has tended to lament poor execution at crucial times, rather than tactical deficiency.
Unquestionably, however, there is a whiff of change in the air. For one thing, the Boks have been training all week at Cape Town Stadium, the white elephant constructed for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The only time set aside for practice at Newlands was Friday afternoon’s captain’s run. Pressure is being applied to the Western Province Rugby Union to move from Newlands to Green Point on a permanent basis and this is yet another not so subtle nudge.
Pressure is also being applied to Meyer to pay more than lip service to transformation. To that end, he called up three black players from outside the squad to be part of proceedings this week. Nizaam Carr has been outstanding for Western Province in the Currie Cup and may be a long-term replacement for Vermeulen.
Seabelo Senatla won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games with the Sevens Springboks earlier this year. He is a product of the Harmony Sports Academy in Welkom and has the one thing that all coaches dream of: pure pace. The third call-up was for Kings prop Lizo Gqoboka, who is from Tabankulu, about 50km southwest of Kokstad. In contrast to the above mentioned pair, Gqoboka has been playing in a losing side and his name will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of rugby followers in this country.
At 24, he is a late developer who only started playing the game five years ago. He may well fit the demographic needed if the way ahead for Bok rugby is not to look exactly like the road behind.
To the same end, Meyer is to be applauded for biting the bullet and giving a first Test start to Oupa Mohoje against the Wallabies. It had been assumed that Mohoje, from QwaQwa, would warm the bench while the recalled Schalk Burger replaced the injured Francois Louw, but the opposite applies.
It is asking a lot of Mohoje to take over from such an influential player, especially considering the limited game time he has been allowed since joining the Bok squad in June. Meyer has covered his options by naming a particularly experienced bench and the likelihood is that the team that ends the contest will have been tested in the fire a lot more than the one that started it.
Transformation should be a way of thinking rather than a destination. For much of his tenure, Meyer has been accused of being stuck in the past. It is a criticism that might be as easily applied to his tactics as his selections.
Now is the time for the coach to prove that he and his team are not just one-trick ponies.