It would be easy to bury Saturday’s World Cup semifinal in an avalanche of statistics. You know the kind of thing: South Africa have beaten New Zealand twice and only lost once in World Cup encounters; statistically speaking, when the Springboks reach a semifinal they have a 66% chance of winning the tournament, and so on. And yet, when all is said and done, we come back to the elephant in the room: How to beat the All Blacks?
The All Blacks are the best team in the world. Their record since inception is remarkable, and their record in the past decade is scary. When the great Richie McCaw retires he will have to search long and hard through his mental archives to remember what it is like to lose.
The current side has no obvious weaknesses. It has a mobile tight five that can win set-piece ball, a beautifully balanced back row, a halfback combination that is the envy of the world and a backline that scores tries by the bucket-load. This is what Heyneke Meyer and his brains trust have to overcome if South Africa is to reach the final.
During his tenure as coach, Meyer has had weeks like these fairly frequently, particularly in a 2015 season blighted by defeat. Asked how he can lift his team against a more fancied opponent, he likes to say: “If we play our game it doesn’t matter what the other team does.” And perhaps at this time and in this place he is absolutely right.
It is pointless trying to match the All Blacks at phase play; they are more accurate and less prone to error than any other side. It is pointless trying to tire them out; they are the world’s fittest side. The only way to beat the All Blacks is to put them under pressure, and the only way to do that is to keep the ball away from them and concentrate on your own game.
Plenty of scar tissue
This is where a Springbok side featuring a few players exceptionally long in the tooth has an advantage. The likes of Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen have plenty of scar tissue accrued from games against New Zealand, but they can also remember the good times, when South Africa found, albeit briefly, ways to beat the men in black.
They should know better than anyone that the kind of subdue-and-penetrate tactics that worked against Wales will not work against the All Blacks. Wales were guilty of failing to put enough points on the board during their moments of superiority, which opened the way for a training ground eight-nine move by Du Preez and Duane Vermeulen to win the game.
It may not have worked against New Zealand, a fitter and more streetwise unit, but the players involved will be key for South Africa this week. It would appear that Meyer’s many gambles on getting players fit and in form during the course of the tournament have worked. Vermeulen is close to his mighty best, Du Preez’s service is coming back and his eye for a gap has grown with the confidence bred by match fitness.
Elsewhere, Lood de Jager has become a man, Pietersen has found the form that has eluded him all season and Willem Alberts is ready to emerge from the cotton wool in which he has been kept. What the team has to remember above all is that beating the All Blacks is about stepping out of your comfort zone. What was good enough against Wales, Scotland and Samoa will not do against New Zealand.
Fortunately, the team only has to think back to the last weekend of July to remember how to put pressure on the All Blacks. In the highest-quality Test of the season South Africa dominated the game until uncontested scrums were allowed in the final quarter. They allowed their focus to slip and McCaw scored a sucker try from a lineout five metres out.
Referee is utterly irrelevant
The legality of McCaw’s try was debated almost as loudly as Craig Joubert’s penalty decision against Scotland in last weekend’s quarterfinal, but with the same outcome; history will record that it happened. The referee who allowed uncontested scrums and McCaw’s try, Jérôme Garcès of France, will control this week’s semifinal between the same two sides.
Garcès has controlled half a dozen games featuring South Africa in his time; the Springboks have won three and lost three, but that says more about the team than it does about Garcès. At this stage of the competition, who referees is utterly irrelevant; it is about who wants it most.
It would be an easy thing to step back into the laager and mutter platitudes such as “we must make our tackles” and “we must kick our goals”, but neither is a recipe for success against New Zealand. It is all about ambition; taking contact, going to ground and recycling the ball through multiple phases does not beat New Zealand. History tells us that McCaw’s side waits for an error and then pounces.
It is about first phase. The Springboks must win their scrum, which means that Frans Malherbe needs to have the game of his life. They must dominate the lineouts, a simpler task given that they have four genuine jumper options and Victor Matfield on the bench. And, more importantly than anything else, they must hold on to the ball.
The team of 2007 could kick the ball away, safe in the knowledge that they would get it back again. The All Blacks will not be so accommodating. If you kick you must find touch. Do not allow the back three to carry the ball back at pace; that way destruction lies. Keep the ball, win your set pieces, kick your goals and let scoreboard pressure do the rest. The All Blacks are a great side, but they are mortal.