Cape Town - Ah, box-kicking ... you might call it the Brexit of South African debate these days.
That currently prolific Springbok on-field policy is splitting the rugby public in these parts roughly down the middle, even as Rassie Erasmus’s charges rumble onward to a World Cup semi-final against Wales in Yokohama on Sunday (11:00 SA time).
The longer they stick doggedly with the tactic and keep winning RWC knockout matches - remember, just two more needed for nirvana - the more those partial to the principle will remain vocal in its defence, perhaps also lambasting the perceived naivety of detractors.
A quick reminder of the situation: one more victory, I’d submit, and the Boks can rightly be deemed (as finalists) to have had an excellent World Cup: a thoroughly commendable state of affairs when you consider the extent to which they were embarrassingly floundering before Erasmus took the tiller.
Clinch the showpiece itself on November 2, naturally, and we enter the terrain of superlative.
Bow out to Wales in the semi and, well, it still goes down as a “good” Bok tournament by my own, admittedly subjective barometer ... keeping in mind that South Africa are twice prior champions.
The merits and demerits of box-kicking - where scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is by extension a subject of remarkably intensive scrutiny as the overwhelming facilitator/executor - have already been widely analysed in depth, and hardly require special repetition here.
Used almost ad nauseum in the quarter-final against Japan, as De Klerk reportedly made an extraordinary 17 kicks from hand, it also made for an array of divergent views over the calibre of the nuggety No 9’s overall performance.
What you can’t submit with any conviction is that the Boks, clearly wishing to gradually throttle underdog foes famous for their fluid approach, got their game-plan glaringly wrong against the Brave Blossoms.
I had always suspected in the lead-up that they would prove some two scores better on the day; the margin of victory ended up being 23 points.
So in the final analysis, then, job - almost indisputably - done!
De Klerk even won the “internationally judged” official man-of-the-match mantle. (And those “internationals” must always be so right, eh?)
It was one of those days, frankly, where one astute observer’s eight out of ten in the scrumhalf’s case might have another acceptably cerebral individual’s four. (I wouldn’t hang either for their views.)
I landed, for my heinous sins, somewhere in between with a 6.5 for the former Lions sparkplug, making due acknowledgement of his energy-laden display, including a very vital role in the Boks’ committed, often physically punishing rush-up defence.
But I also felt compelled to moderate my hero worship on the grounds that De Klerk’s kicking also went to extremes, while - not irrelevantly, surely? - only an unsatisfactorily small percentage of his hoists were actually retrieved back by the Boks in contestation.
Against the co-cream of Test teams, and with due respect to the still-emerging Japanese, I remain hugely less than convinced it would be a passport to Bok success on the scoreboard after 80 minutes.
Even if box-kicking surfaces again from the Springboks in the genuinely red-letter phase now of RWC 2019, I suspect it will be on a more toned-down basis against teams far likelier to punish them emphatically for inaccuracy in execution.
It’s hard not to brand the tactic at least some degree of a passion-killer in rugby, a cop-out; dour invitation to the opposition to be the ones “playing the rugby”.
But I also feel it extremely necessary to add this much: it hasn’t, for the large part, prevented the Erasmus-era Boks from being very comfortable, often enough thrilling strikers in the try column (while also letting little in the other way, of course: only three tries against them at RWC so far).
This year alone, in both pre-World Cup Tests and at the tournament itself, South Africa have amassed 49 tries from 10 matches, so an average of a shade under five per game.
What’s more, as many as 19 of them have gone to wings (38.77 percent) - the position where you’d most expect tries to commonly come from if many of your attacking systems are firing with pleasing smoothness.
Despite the low-risk, suffocating approach of the Boks for large tracts of the quarter-final, they got the seriously prolific Makazole Mapimpi over the whitewash twice amidst their three dot-downs overall and the second was especially easy on the eye: a long-range raid sparked by a Handre Pollard break from well in the Bok half and also featuring deft link-up from the previously error-prone Willie le Roux.
It would warrant consideration among any “top 10 tries of the World Cup” sort of compilation.
South Africa aren’t winning Tests - as they occasionally weren’t averse to in days past, remember? - by eight penalties to two tries.
No, you can’t really accuse the Rassie-generation Boks of that.
Those bloody box-kicks and all …
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