Dublin - It was much worse than most would have expected, but the fact that there was some predictability to most of the Ireland areas of superiority in their 38-3 win over the Springboks in Dublin must be taken as an indicator of what needs to be changed by the losers.
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It was pointed out in the build-up to the first game of the end of year tour that Dublin has often represented either a defining point or wake-up call for the Boks. This time was no different, with the big loss repeating the 2014 defeat and 2006 setback in terms of erasing what momentum might have been gained from a good performance in the last match of the southern hemisphere season.
There has been a lot of talk about Bok improvement this year, but the Aviva Stadium disaster, and there really is no other word for it, showed the South Africans just how far they have to travel if they want to challenge for the World Cup in 2019.
It was written before the game that the Boks would have to win more than just parity in the forward battle if they hoped to compete against a team that had a clear superiority at halfback. The Bok big men needed to dominate like they did at times during their passionate performance against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
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They weren’t able to do that, and to be fair, the degree of dominance that might have been needed was always unlikely in an away game against an Ireland team that has a lot going for it and is not short of ability in the very areas where the Boks are short.
Short perhaps being an operative word, for if there was the sound of flapping wings above Dublin on Saturday night it would surely have been the sound of chickens coming home to roost for a Bok team that has persisted with a back three that is too diminutive in physical stature, a defensive system that does not press enough and is too narrow, and a midfield that doesn’t look like it is made up of players who should be playing centre.
Okay, let’s rephrase that last one – Jesse Kriel shouldn’t be playing centre. Damian de Allende should but he is hopelessly out of form and it is hard to remember when last the Stormers inside centre produced a strong game at international level. It might well date back to before the 2015 World Cup.
De Allende was a concern before the game. He hasn’t played much rugby recently, and while Rohan Janse van Rensburg wasn’t always in his best form for the Golden Lions in the Currie Cup, he should probably have been on this tour.
Jan Serfontein is of course the first choice No 12 and probably will be in 2019. This game showed how much the Boks missed his massive work-rate. That is what Serfontein does so well – he works hard with the ball and off the ball, and is an 80 minute menace across the park to opponents. If there is a Bok player on this tour who can even remotely bring what Serfontein could it is not De Allende. At least not judging by what we have seen from him recently.
The inside centre was ineffectual and perhaps his most memorable contribution was the ill-advised kick at a time when the Boks had an overlap beckoning and the ball should have gone through the hands at a stage of the first half.
Not that the defeat should be blamed on De Allende. Far from it. The focus on him is just an acknowledgement that perhaps the real problem faced by the Boks is questionable selection in some areas, with the back three definitely featuring in the argument. The first Ireland try was scored too easily by the hosts winning the aerial battle, and that aspect of their superiority was to feature later in the game too.
This is not the first time the Boks have lost heavily in Dublin of course, and beleaguered coach Allister Coetzee would do well to think back to his last visit to the city as part of a Bok management team. That was in 2006, when the Boks lost heavily but still managed to salvage some pride later on the tour by beating England.
The Boks can do that again but it is questionable that the Boks possess the same strength in leadership that they did then on a tour where the South Africans travelled under-strength. The absence of Serfontein and the appointed captain for the year aside, the Boks aren't really under-strength now and it is going to require a massive adjustment in the areas that were so cruelly exposed by Ireland, and perhaps to their psyche too. That the Irish might have delivered a telling psychological blow against the Boks was evident when their scrum fell apart later in the game.
This was an area that had been steady early on, with Beast Mtawarira joining Pieter-Steph du Toit in being the most impressive Bok player. Replacement tighthead Wilco Louw showed that perhaps he should have been in the starting team with his performance during the first hour as a replacement for the injured Coenie Oosthuizen. However, Louw is perhaps not quite conditioned enough to play a full 80 minutes, which was effectively what he was expected to do in this game as he was on in the second minute.
You get the sense that the scrum can be fixed and is not really an area of concern. It has been an area of consistent strength for the Boks, and provided they can recover psychologically from what happened in Dublin, they should pose a threat to the French in Paris this coming weekend.
But what to do with the lack of authority of the halfbacks, the poor all-round kicking game, the weaknesses in the defensive system and that perennial problem posed by lack of physical presence on the wing and at fullback is much more difficult to figure out. Dublin was a massive wake-up call. Remedies will have to be applied in Paris or the tour as a whole could prove a calamitous and negative cap to a year where progress was being made.
There were no redeeming features in Dublin like there were in the 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany. It was asked after that game if that massive defeat was an aberration rather than an indicator of where the Boks stood. After Newlands it looked as though we’d had the answer, but now it looks like we are back to square one.
It is a fact that the Boks haven’t managed to beat a top ranked team this year, and they’ve now been exposed twice. The remaining matches of this tour are going to be telling when it comes to deciding which direction this Bok team is headed.
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