Boks: Kick them when down
Spiro Zavos - Rugby Heaven
Some websites carried the remarkable photograph of Ma'a Nonu bursting through the Springboks defence to set up the All Blacks' last try in their thrilling 29-22 victory in Johannesburg. Remarkable because Nonu is running with one of his boots left in the despairing grasp of John Smit. There is a metaphor here. The Springboks were given the order of the boot by the All Blacks, who scored their first victory in Johannesburg since 1992, and their first ever Tri-Nations win there.
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Despite the closeness of the scoreline and the fact that the All Blacks scored 12 points in the last five minutes of play, the home side was really thrashed all over the field.
The Springboks scrum was under pressure most of the game, even though it won a penalty when Smit went up early. The famed lineout dominance has gone with penalties and free-kicks conceded for crooked throws and taking too long to throw in. The All Blacks missed five chances of scoring tries and scored three while the Springboks took their only chance which came from a couple of barging runs near the tryline following a tap kick.
Most importantly for the Wallabies, who play the Springboks at Pretoria on Saturday, the home side did not show anything new in its strategy and tactics, aside from playing its pressure game with a bit more physicality. But it was essentially the same game that has failed so far - that of kicking away first-phase ball to the opposition and trying to force errors. This game does not work, as the Wallabies demonstrated in Brisbane and the All Blacks at Soweto, when the defending side doesn't make serious errors, when it keeps the ball in hand (Quade Cooper kicked once in Brisbane) and when it plays at pace to tire out the big, unfit Springboks pack, a tactic I call "the running of the bulls".
One interesting statistic was presented during the broadcast. The Springboks pack weighed in at 901kg and the All Blacks 876kg. It was noticeable, too, how the old bulls of the once-great Springboks pack have slowed. Smit, playing in his 100th Test, was hardly able to keep up with the play. I did not notice him in action until the last minute of play when Nonu burst past him. Victor Matfield, who plays his 100th Test against the Wallabies, is also a passenger around the field, and increasingly in the lineouts. The Springboks tried some rolling mauls, and won a penalty from one them, but a tactic that was once so effective for them was easily contained.
You had the sense before and during the Test at Soweto that the Springboks were essentially relying on mind games and the history of inevitable victories at altitude to carry them to victory. One of the banners held aloft before the Test said it all: "Today We Save The Bokke." There was the triumphalism of Smit coming out on to the field (before the Test) with his kids. The mic was turned off for the All Blacks haka allowing the crowd to shout it down with inane chanting of "Ole! Ole! Oleeaaay!" The presumption, which was ludicrous and self-defeating, was that the All Blacks, a side which has won 75 percent of its Tests, would crumble.
The Wallabies must show similar mental and physical toughness on Saturday. I'd like to see Scott Higginbotham in the pack to give some speed and additional aggression to the back row. The faltering Springboks lineout needs to be challenged in the air and on the ground. The Wallabies have avoided contact clashes with the Springboks pack in recent Tests. This made sense last season. But this year the old bulls are ready to be taken to the slaughterhouse. The match referee, Irishman Alain Rolland, likes to referee a fast game. The Test, therefore, is set up for the Wallabies to give the Springboks another order of the boot.