Much has been said and written about South Africa’s last-second defeat by Australia in Brisbane last week. This contribution to social media perhaps best encapsulates what happened: “There seemed to be two plans in the last quarter. Plan A was to give the ball to Willie le Roux and hope for the best. Plan B was to give the ball to Israel Folau and hope for the best.”
It tells a tale of a Springbok side that did not place any value on possession. On the rare occasions in the final half hour that the ball came South Africa’s way, it was sent back to Australia by the boot of Le Roux or the halfbacks.
It was reminiscent of a tale told by the great Willie John McBride of his Test debut for Ireland against France in Dublin. The fight started as the whistle blew to begin the game and McBride said: “I don’t remember if there was a ball, but if there was, we didn’t want it.”
Not an encouraging development
The Springboks have been here before and there are enough survivors of the Jake White era to make a guess about where the tactics came from. Atavism, the reversion to an ancestral type, ruled. Under pressure, the Boks reverted to what they knew best, kicking and tackling. This is not an encouraging development in a World Cup year and it would be a suicidal ploy against this week’s opponents, New Zealand.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has made eight changes to his team for the Ellis Park Test, but readily admitted that one of his trump cards had already been discarded: the effect of playing at altitude. The Boks and All Blacks boarded the same flight to Johannesburg last Sunday.
Of the eight changes, two are because of the injuries sustained in Brisbane by Victor Matfield and Marcell Coetzee. Thus the cracks that lie beneath the surface of the squad have been revealed.
To deal first with Matfield: in an ideal world the 38-year-old legend would be going to the World Cup as a father figure, a captain for the dirt trackers and a bench option when experience is required. But injuries, loss of form and a certain conservatism from the coach have conspired to make Matfield a vital cog in the first-choice team.
Throughout his career the big man has managed to avoid serious injury, and the current setback, a hamstring strain, falls squarely into the minor category. It is, however, exactly the sort of nagging injury that besets sportsmen as they grow older. Again, this is not ideal in a World Cup year.
To that end, some cajoling behind the scenes has persuaded Flip van der Merwe to backtrack on a decision to make himself unavailable for the national side. It is odd how prevalent these “unretirements” become when the carrot of a World Cup is dangled. Van der Merwe was apparently upset when he was not offered a new Springbok contract. There is a simple solution to such developments: play a bit better.
As for Coetzee, it is unfortunate that the knee damage that is, allegedly, not as serious as first thought, has sidelined him after a few standout performances in the green and gold over the past fortnight. It has, however, allowed the coach the latitude to select Heinrich Brüssow at openside flank.
Four years and 38 Test matches have come and gone since Brüssow’s last Test, which also happened to be the last of the Peter de Villiers era. Defeat in Wellington by a limited Wallaby outfit ejected South Africa from the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage. Brüssow limped off 20 minutes into the game, allowing David Pocock unfettered access to the ball at the breakdowns.
Needless to say, Brüssow did not make himself unavailable; Meyer simply avoided picking him. Eventually the pocket battleship gave up on ever being recalled and signed to play in Japan. It is quite likely that we have been deprived of the best years of Brüssow’s Test career; although it is important to point out that he only turned 29 this week.
As it happens, Brüssow’s inclusion in the starting 15 makes the back row look instantly more combative. Schalk Burger, who has been rewarded with the captaincy in his 77th Test, was immense last week, and Francois Louw has always looked a better seven flank than six. If Brussow can find the form of 2010/11 the All Blacks may not have it all their own way.
Another player who needs to rediscover his touch is Handré Pollard. This time last year he played one of the best games ever by a South African flyhalf, scoring two tries against New Zealand in a 27-25 win at Ellis Park. It is fair to say he has been treading water a little since then, without once suggesting that he is anything less than a magnificent prospect.
Meyer has given the entire backline that played against Australia a vote of confidence and, quite clearly, Pollard is his man. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as he remembers that Pat Lambie can play a bit, too. It was Lambie, after all, who kicked the 55m penalty that clinched the match last year.
In the greater scheme of things, Saturday’s Test is the most important of the year. Players who stand up to be counted now can be relied on when the going gets tough at the World Cup. Hopefully the coach remembered that when he selected the side.