Rugby Championship

Easy on the high bombs, Boks!

2015-07-20 12:56
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – If only they had been willing and able to keep the ball in their own hands a bit more, South Africa would probably have clung on for meritorious victory over a street-wise Australia outfit in their Brisbane backyard on Saturday.

Instead they gradually became their own worst enemies in several respects as the Wallabies sprang to life in the critical last third of the Castle Rugby Championship encounter to snatch a 24-20 win.

The Springboks did plenty right on the day and should have put this one to bed, but a pivotal factor in the irksome outcome from a visiting point of view, I strongly felt, was the damaging and mostly fruitless obsession with hoisting 50-50 high balls – by very definition thus turning hard-earned possession swiftly into a lottery -- in the roughly midfield areas of play.

It was something several South African sides did to excess during Super Rugby this year ... often, it was difficult not to suspect, to mask poverty in more constructive offensive ideas and execution.

Observers have expressed some reasonably justified concerns over the calibre of attack coaching in the SA conference of that competition, which may also explain the country’s glaring title drought in it from the 2011 season onward.

One thing you cannot passionately accuse Bok coach Heyneke Meyer of is excessive conservatism and reluctance to whip the ball through hands: his teams have scored a hatful of easy-on-the-eye, deftly-manufactured tries and there have been fledgling signs already that this ethic won’t change in the 2015 campaign.

But a little more bravery in that regard, after they had opened up a really rosy 20-7 lead in the 45th minute, might well have provided another scoreboard blow to put a final nail in the Aussie coffin – even it had been a penalty goal or two engineered as a result of favourable field position by SA.

Instead, and unlike an All Black team who would probably only have turned deadly screws had they similarly commanded a 13-point lead over their cross-ditch foes, the Boks retreated mentally, it seemed, into “sit back and soak it up” mode with all the high physical demands bloody-minded defence requires.

All too perpetually, both before and during the concerted Wallaby fightback period, South Africa gave themselves too little breathing space by opting for in-field kicks straight onto Australia’s imposing fullback Israel Folau.

It should quickly have become obvious that the Waratahs kingpin was in imperious form in that department, as he won aerial tussle after aerial tussle, every so often also turning his safe “pouch” into a counter-attacking charge that had the Bok defence scrambling at high pace to arrest the threat: we all know what that man can do in a bit of space.

That is not to advocate that all tactical kicking be binned, of course: there is also a case for saying the Boks might have tried with more conviction to pin the Wallabies back at times with rolling kicks into touch near the opposition corner-flags, provided they had swift chasers to either rule out or pressurise the quick throw and territorial relief.

But the Boks saw less and less of both the ball and quality real estate as the clock wound fatefully down, apparently convinced that their defence – extremely adhesive and admirable at times, it is true – would hold to the last.

But it also a simple fact that, in the final analysis, Australia outscored them 3-2 in the try column and two of those touchdowns came in the last nine minutes thanks to remorseless pressure and the Boks’ “travel legs” being tested to a very maximum.

I have never been a willing subscriber to the theory that South Africa’s best route to success against the cream of global foes is via ceaseless devotion to the “cultural”, if you like, testosterone-fuelled defensive resolve we know they do possess.

Yes, every now and then it earns the Boks a famous, premier-tier scalp, but it just isn’t sustainable as a dominant principle week after week in a major tournament or keynote series, as it requires too much energy.

Is it really a healthy development that, after round one of Rugby Championship action this year, the top six tacklers are all South African?

If the stats are to be believed, here is the scoreboard: Schalk Burger 20, Francois Louw and Lood de Jager 18, Damian de Allende, Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee all 15.

The first non-South African to appear on the radar is Richie McCaw, with his 13 tackles against Argentina.

 I applaud many of the “brave new world” strategies gradually being turned into regular policy during the tenure of Meyer, who is a sharp rugby coach even if the absurdly emotional Internet trolls after any defeat – and no team ever wins 100 percent of the time – will religiously try to persuade us otherwise.

Might I suggest that bravery actually be turned up a further notch?

Unless up against an enemy back three with known fallibility or obvious cases of burgeoning on-day yips, enough of the aimless, transfer-of-possession kicking and greater confidence in ball retention, please ...

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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