Boks remind us of their brawn
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – More than a pinch of power, a dash of desperation, a lashing of raw courage ... put them together and the Springboks proved on Saturday that you can still turn them into a fairly lethal cocktail.
Why, it is even one heady enough to sometimes flatten the seemingly untouchable All Blacks, whatever the protests you may hear about the New Zealanders having left some key personnel at home for the Castle Tri-Nations encounter in Port Elizabeth.
The swagger with which the under-strength visitors started this Test match suggested strongly that they believed they could contemptuously run the more earthy Boks off their feet anyway – the fact that it didn’t happen, and that there was decent daylight on the scoreboard the other way as the final whistle sounded on a bone-crunching affair, is something for the defending World Cup champions to take considerable heart from.
New Zealand rugby, at the same time, will hardly be in mass mourning over this hiccup – they still scored the only try of the fixture and came within a whisker of one or two more – but at least there will be a wee flutter of unease in that part of the planet that the diesel-belching Bok machine remains stubbornly industrious and bloody-minded on its day.
South Africa boxed hard and they boxed clever, even if elegance was conspicuously absent from their ring-craft at the buzzing Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with excitement: the Boks still finished stone last in this year’s Tri-Nations (the winners to be decided in Brisbane next weekend) and could not cross the chalk in two home matches at very close to full staffing.
These are rather sobering stats, and certainly no reason to start bragging that the country is “back”.
Their game-plan remains pretty basic and easy enough to read – that will be even more the case at RWC 2011 now, because you can bet your last rand that Morne Steyn, on the strength of his showing in the Friendly City, will be the go-to flyhalf for essential matches at the tournament after some thought in recent months that a Butch James or Pat Lambie might be installed for potentially greater X-factor.
Forget it, Fred. The Boks, with their firm faith in some old warhorses from 2007, are going to make an ever more determined bid to bludgeon their way to retention of the Webb Ellis Cup, with Steyn’s metronomic boot the likeliest source of points on the board for the South African cause in tight, strength-versus-strength encounters.
Not that one wishes to make Steyn seem like some kind of plodding Neanderthal: he mixed up his play quite nicely at times on Saturday and his crisp distribution when he did unload the “pill” via his hands could hardly be identified as a key reason for the Boks’ second consecutive try-scoring blank.
The Bulls man also defended his channel with the required resolved and of course his unerring efficiency with the boot yet again shone through richly: in ding-dong matches, he is probably better suited than anyone else around the globe to bang over that game-swaying penalty from an acute angle or snap dropped goal.
Make no mistake, even with some reserve material on view, the All Blacks made awe-inspiring, near-effortless yards at times with ball in hand, and it took some particularly resolute backline defence from the likes of Steyn, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana to keep the home fortress from being breached.
Habana, perhaps, deserves special mention: he has had a well-nigh rotten season in many respects, but this stellar Bok figure of 2007 was like a man possessed for awareness and commitment in Port Elizabeth.
Yes, on one occasion he came off his defensive line too early yet again to cause a few hearts to stop, but his cover-defence was terrific throughout and he also earned one legendary “steal” at the breakdown in the second half to an array of appreciative whoops and slaps from his team-mates.
What of the Springbok pack? Well, for starters it was such a breath of fresh air to see a green-and-gold eight notably ruling the roost against these opponents at scrum-time, where the grip seldom ceased even after Gurthro Steenkamp had come through 40 comeback minutes at loosehead very successfully and Beast Mtawarira was a marvellous sub to be able to inject.
In general exchanges – in a match remarkable for the amount of combat which took place in the “middle” areas of the park – the entire Bok eight were pictures of zeal and robustness.
When normally flair-conscious All Blacks players start making elementary handling and passing errors, you can be sure it is at least partly because they are being unsettled by the expectancy of rib-rattling hits from the enemy outfit.
Let’s face it, how often do you want to be gang-tackled by the brutish combo of Bakkies Botha and Willem Alberts, as memorably happened once to some luckless All Blacks customer in this Test?
Also to consider with the looming World Cup in mind is that, if the Boks do still end up meeting the old enemy at the semi-final stage, they are likely to take to the field with a useful little talisman in their ranks – gritty open-side flank Heinrich Brussow, the popular choice as man of the match on Saturday, has now won four of four personal meetings with New Zealand.
His face bloodied and pockmarked as he received his post-game laurel, the Free Stater looked as though a hand-grenade might have exploded under his nose.
Brussow simply typified the Bok resolve in PE.
Yes, the supposed Bok corpse does still offer up a pulse ...