Boks stuck in semi-final Catch-22

For kicks: South Africa’s scrum-half Faf de Klerk has laughed off criticism of his box-kicking that annoys so many fans. He is sticking to the coach’s plan. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

For kicks: South Africa’s scrum-half Faf de Klerk has laughed off criticism of his box-kicking that annoys so many fans. He is sticking to the coach’s plan. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

Rarely has such a dominating win sown so much restlessness. The Springboks’ bruising takedown of Japan was unequivocal, yet a feeling of uneasiness washed over many supporters after they walked away from the game.

Much of the scepticism has to do with the layperson’s distaste for the not-so-pretty, but effective, grind that the hosts could do little to combat. But there’s more to it than the aesthetic.
The concern is that the seemingly one-dimensional play being employed won’t be enough to beat a New Zealand or England … and maybe not even Wales.

The criticism also extends to the individuals, with calls growing stronger to inject a fresh outlook into the side. Those calls will go unheard.

Expecting Rassie Erasmus to make major changes to his side and approach will be a foolish thing to do right now. Under his approach, the Boks have been too effective and consistent to go fiddling at these late stages.

Tweaks could, however, be implemented without upsetting the balance.If there was one spot that epitomises the disconnect between the watcher back home and the approach in Japan, it was at scrumhalf. Faf de Klerk kicked at every opportunity, drawing the ire of much of the South African fan base who quickly grew tired of watching a swathe of green chasing down the ball. In the game itself, meanwhile, he was named man of the match; credited as an instrumental cog in the Boks’ territorial domination.

Again, the question goes beyond the watchability and should rather be posed to ask whether the method will be effective against the other three nations left in the competition.

“Look, you’re going into a one-off, you want to win the game more than anything else, so you play to a plan,” says former Springbok selector Ian McIntosh. “But I think sometimes we gave Japan too much respect. Yes there’s a time you have to kick to turn them, especially from their rush defence but it also gave them the ball to play against us. Especially in that first half.

“I still believe that in certain areas and certain times you have to kick for position. But I still believe there are a lot of times we can take the ball and run at them. Keep that ball, suck them in, and then play it wide to two very dangerous wings.

“There’s an old saying that you’ve got to earn to go wide. I always used to say: you’ve got to be tight to be loose. Sometimes you can be too loose and that’s silly when you just run the ball willy-nilly.”

You don’t have to share McIntosh’s tactical nous to understand that against New Zealand —should destiny set up a final meeting — you want to be giving them the ball as little as possible. Whether De Klerk will begin to limit his box-kicking, his hallmark in this setup, at all against Wales is something we’ll soon find out.

The half-back himself laughed off the memes and jokes that have been made at his expense this week. He, perhaps more than anyone, understands the coach’s vision and will continue to implement it until instructed otherwise.

If De Klerk is the vessel for the aerial assault, Willie le Roux has been its biggest mishap in recent games. The full-back failed in nearly all of his leaps against Japan and hardly looked sure-footed when asked to relieve pressure.

His decline characterises what looks like an uncreative backline on occasion — or at least one that is not expected to control the attacking play. For former Springbok scrum-half André Pretorius, that appears to be the only weakness of recent imperious Bok displays.

“The one thing that I’ve said from the start is that it just feels like we’re a team that if we can stay in front and defend a score then no problem, but if we’re going to be eight points behind and we need to score twice then there’s going to be a question mark on that.

“We need to get the ball into Cheslin [Kolbe], [Makazole] Mapimpi and [Damian] de Allende, those guys are a real threat in the line at the moment. To knock on 10 doors, one might open, if you knock on 100 then 10 might open. It looks like we don’t want to play with the ball, which is fine because we have a certain defensive attitude. But when you have the ball, give it to your threats more often than not and make the defence work.”

To many, the immediate answer is to mix it up at 15. Given Erasmus’s nature of sticking to a plan, that’s extremely unlikely in the games that remain.

Pretorius says: “As a fan and as someone who wants to see your 15 best players on the field, then I’d say yes, look at Cheslin or Damian Willemse or Warrick Gelant at the back and get Sbu Nkosi on the wing.

“But when you do get the results ... although Willie’s primary job of high-ball catching is a bit suspect at the moment, he must be giving something else to the team for Rassie to say: ‘I’m sticking with him’. That’s why I say, if he backs Willie, it’s because we’re getting results and he’s doing something that we don’t know about; doing something that Rassie deems very, very important going into these finals.”

Erasmus can’t be faulted for not shaking up the side at this stage. His formula is effective and has got the Springboks this far. Whether he might consider some small tweaks to up its potency to the necessary level is another matter entirely.

Luke Feltham

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