Johannesburg - After a dreadful past season, the Springboks have finally found the sweet spot in their model.
Of the many column inches dedicated to the Springboks, who are currently doing a reasonable impersonation of Lazarus after last season’s woes, few have been able to explain exactly how Allister Coetzee’s men have managed to resurrect themselves.
The popular theories hover around the inclusion of Brendan Venter and Franco Smith to the coaching staff, Warren Whiteley’s ascension to the captaincy, better conditioning and an improved team culture.
But it has been difficult to pinpoint how a team that lost eight of its 12 test matches last year has yet to lose even one its first four games of this season.
Thanks to his job as Blue Bulls director of rugby, John Mitchell – a former All Blacks, Western Force, Lions and US Eagles coach – is a man familiar with doing an ambulance job.
He took a stab at what he thinks has changed: “What I’ve observed is that I see a leaner athlete, so that tells me they’re doing something in their periodisation that’s relative to how they want to play.
“I see more sticking to policy and structure in their back and front halves of the field; I see consistency in selection. When a player is replaced, it’s almost like they’re trying to replace him with a very similar skills set. All of that leads to better team cohesion and, clearly, the foundations of their culture are critical to how they go about things ... they’re all connected to one objective,” he said.
Conditioning and the new buzzword in South African team sport – culture – have received the most airtime. But is that all it takes for everything to fall into place for a team?
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to play the game and be ready to play during the most demanding periods of the game,” said Mitchell. “As we’re well aware, the games are going to be more demanding. Australia will probably be more demanding in terms of ball in play than Argentina and, certainly, the All Blacks will ramp it right up, so to speak.
“So, whether they’re ready for that most demanding period or have the ability to sustain it against the All Blacks is yet to be seen. But if you look at their performances in June and the way they dealt with the Argentinians in a very calm way, they’re handling the most demanding periods.”
Unlike many others, Mitchell was enthusiastic about the experiment to play Cheetahs flanker Uzair Cassiem at number eight in Whiteley’s injury-enforced absence.
“I thought Cassiem had an outstanding game at number eight. His energy and mobility around the park were impressive. I’ve seen him play a lot of blindside, but I hadn’t seen him play at number eight ... he adjusted really well. But Australia and New Zealand will put greater demands on him in terms of mobility,” Mitchell said.
“These days, we’re after quicker number eights than just the slow, big and strong number eights. Your blindside is probably more of that, but if you can get a quick number eight, it can be very effective, certainly in scrum play.”
That said, he would like to see the explosive Jean-Luc du Preez start at blindside flank: “You could get away with Du Preez as a starter dealing with the intensity and the physicality of the gain line earlier in the match. For me, Du Preez is probably a starting gain line physicality-type player, whereas the faster loose-forward with a little more evasion is probably ideal for the finishing of the test match.”
But Mitchell cautioned against expecting the Springboks to suddenly be the All Blacks’ equals.
“At the end of the day, the All Blacks are pretty close to four years of stacking good stuff on good stuff, and now the Boks have found a sweet spot in their model, so it’s important that they keep stacking good stuff on good stuff.
“Whether that’s going to bridge the gap, we’ll have to wait and see. At the end of the day, you have to start somewhere and, in my mind, they’re doing the right thing. I’m looking forward to those two test matches when they arrive.
“Interestingly, I was reading an article by Sir Clive Woodward saying the All Blacks are vulnerable. That’s a very dangerous statement to make.