Port Elizabeth - The televised evidence from Sydney earlier in the day should have provided a reality check in terms of how much still needs to be done, but the Springboks ended their opening Rugby Championship Test with their performance graph on a sharp upward curve.
As skipper Eben Etzebeth noted afterwards, four out of four from the season is a nice place to be in, particularly after the difficulties of 2016. The Boks have yet to play an away test match, and neither France nor Argentina rank among the top three nations in world rugby, but all the games have been won comfortably. The Boks have scored 35 or more points in each match, and perhaps more significantly, they have done so while keeping their opposition pegged to scores well less than half of that.
There wasn’t the flash, class and arrogance about the Bok performance that there was about the All Blacks when earlier in the day they scored 40 points before halftime against the hapless Wallabies. Had the Kiwis kept that up, and produced a full 80 minutes, they would have easily eclipsed the big win they scored against the South Africans at Kings Park last October.
New Zealand getting off to a flyer and Australia coming back appears to be the pattern in matches between those teams. If you look at the scores in their clashes over the past 20 years, there have been many times the All Blacks have scored in the 40s, with most of the points coming in the first half.
Given how they came back there may be some excitement about the quality of the Wallabies’ attacking game, but the truth is that the defence they have worked so hard at is still a mess. Some of their defensive work in the first half was just woeful. You would say the opposite about the Boks, who have joined some of the other more successful international teams in recognising that aggressive defence is the key to success in the modern game, with most tries coming off turn-overs.
The Pumas are one of the teams for whom the penny has dropped, and it was one of the reasons why the Boks, while slick, never looked as flash as the All Blacks did. The Argentinians were as physical at the contact areas as they were expected to be, their line-speed was impressive. So the Boks had to work at breaking them down, and it was why the Pumas, on the scoreboard at least, remained competitive until after halftime.
But the Boks were patient and they were good at keeping the ball. They knew that if they persisted the break would come, and it did, with three second half tries and one just before halftime setting up a comfortable win.
“We wanted to play in their half, and particularly in the first 20 minutes the aim was just to keep the pressure up,” said skipper Eben Etzebeth.
“We did that, and it resulted in penalties. Elton (Jantjies) is a good kicker, so it enabled us to get an early advantage.”
Etzebeth backed his pack though later in the game when it came to kickable penalties, and a good proportion of the Bok tries came after kickable attempts had been eschewed. It was a mark of just how good the pack was on the day, and of all the many boxes that are being ticked by the Boks on their march forward to a more respectable place on the world rankings – they have now reached fourth – this area was probably the most resounding positive on the day.
“The pack played really well and we enjoyed set-piece domination, particularly in the scrums,” said coach Allister Coetzee.
“Coenie Oosthuizen was exceptional, and there was also good impact off the bench.”
Rugby tactics and philosophies can be argued until the early hours of the morning but it really is a simple game – if you get forward dominance, you are usually halfway to achieving your objective. At Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, where the Boks have yet to lose, it was the performance of the forwards that was the catalyst for the synergy that is starting to emerge in their game.
They did waste a few opportunities on attack in the first half and from the vantage point of the press box at the Port Elizabeth venue, it did appear at times that they were too lateral in their running. But they sorted that out later, and the important thing was that they remained patient.
“People must realise that the Pumas are not the Jaguares (who play in Super Rugby). They are a very strong and physical side, and their defence was excellent. It took a long time for us to find the gaps and it took us time to create opportunities. It was good though that we stayed patient and kept the ball,” said Coetzee.
“At halftime the message was to stay patient, and with their wingers up, we also resolved to get the ball behind them. We needed to get into the right areas and stay patient. When Raymond Rhule scored his try there was space opening on the edges. It was very pleasing to see players back themselves when they found space.”
Tactical awareness is another thing that the Boks are good at this year which was almost non-existent before, and adds to the boxes being ticked. If you look at the list where there have been massive improvements – scrumming, mauling, defence, attacking game and not least the confidence, composure and decision making of players in key positions – then there is plenty for the Boks and their fans to be pleased about. Boxes are being ticked, and in a most emphatic way.
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