Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Cape Town – It may appear a bizarre
proposition to some, but New Zealand’s scintillating quarter-final disposal of
France and South Africa’s laboured, late triumph over Wales is a reasonably
encouraging scenario from a Springbok perspective for Saturday’s World Cup
semi-final at Twickenham.
Veteran Bok monitors will be only too aware
that the national team so often play their most urgent, intense and
bloody-minded rugby -- OK, I hesitated over use of the word “best” – against
their oldest foes when they are being labelled as behind-the-times blunt
instruments and the All Blacks are earning laurels from far and wide for
contrasting thrill factor and innovation.
Could Richie McCaw’s outfit be even better
this week? Phew, the answer is probably no.
Could South Africa improve on some of the
imprecision and the excessive timidity in attacking desire displayed against
Wales? Yes, you would think so ... and it will be necessary.
Of course the Boks will nevertheless enter
the semi (17:00 kickoff, SA time) not only as quite understandable underdogs
but widely deemed as dinosaurs by neutrals wishing “good rugby” to have the
final say in the contest ... or read, a routine, easy-on-the-eye All Black
But those critics might also be erroneously
overlooking the fact that by the time the last-four stage comes along at World
Cups – and you might argue the same trend occurs in the football equivalent –
almost all teams are inclined to resort, or in certain cases retreat, to more
Yes, even those black-jerseyed “Brazilians”
of rugby union know that you don’t just pitch up in a RWC semi with an
automatic right to mass, ball-in-hand exhibitionism.
Quite what, for instance, were the
Australians thinking when they were tossing the ball around liberally and
naively in their own territory late on in the dramatic quarter-final against
Scotland, allowing outside centre Mark Bennett to slip in for a converted try that
pinched the Scots the lead with only seven minutes left?
In the end that madness – and they’d
already leaked one intercept-type try -- was barely discussed, only because of
the widespread subsequent furore over Craig Joubert’s decisive penalty in
Wallaby favour just before the final whistle.
Sometimes you can simply play too much
rugby, and it so nearly came home to haunt Australia, ultimately deserved
onward marchers to the semis when all is said and done.
New Zealand will know as well as anybody
else that the Boks are decently geared for “knockout rugby” at World Cups: like
their methods or not, the men in green and gold have a reputation that only
blossoms for going either all the way or very nearly there in what is now six
involvements in RWCs.
When you think more deeply about it, the
Springboks have only been indisputable duds at one tournament (2003, in the
sour-tasting post-Staaldraad aftermath) as they never looked potential title-winners
and were put out of their misery by the All Blacks in a one-sided
But in 1995 and 2007 South Africa won the
World Cup, in 1999 they were edged-out semi-finalists and gutsy eventual
“bronze medallists”, and nobody needs reminding of the role referee Bryce
Lawrence played in their loss, albeit as the notably dominant side, to
Australia at the last-eight phase of the last one in 2011.
You’ve also got to acknowledge this much:
our national rugby side traditionally offer immeasurably greater “BMT” and
backbone, if not always accompanying razzle-dazzle, at World Cups than either
of their cricket or soccer compatriots.
Statistically, everything points to the All
Blacks prevailing at Twickers on Saturday: as if they even needed extra
motivation against the Boks, they are a tantalising two games away from being
maiden three-time winners of the Webb Ellis Cup, as well as first-time
retainers of the title.
They have been uninterrupted world No
1-ranked side for what seems like an eternity (it is since mid-November 2009,
to be precise) and boast a 10-2 advantage in wins over South Africa from 2010
Still, evidence from all of the last three
meetings between these traditional global giants serves as a reminder that
recent clashes have been intriguingly, educatively close. From most recent, the
scores have been NZ 27 SA 20 (2015, Johannesburg), SA 27 NZ 25 (2014,
Johannesburg) and NZ 14 SA 10 (2014, Wellington).
Among those, too, have been contests
universally lauded for their compelling, pendulum-swinging high quality ... and
when last I looked it took more than one to tango, didn’t it?
Heyneke Meyer can only claim to have
knocked over these opponents once in seven bilateral meetings during his tenure
so far, but the Bok coach does appear to have increasingly learnt how to
unruffle them, and then some.
This is a World Cup semi-final; it is not a
beauty pageant. If the Boks edge out the New Zealand juggernaut by crudely
squeezing the life out of their opponents in a grim arm-wrestle – quite likely
their best route to an upset – who among SA fans will really give a hoot?
I accept this much: if the often
free-scoring, sublime off-loading All Blacks get more than a full score ahead
too early, the risk increases hugely that the scoreboard may blow out a bit,
given that catch-up rugby is not the Boks’ strongest suit on such occasions.
They need to be “hanging in” for as long as
possible, for their own dream to become a reality.
But a few days out, and without the benefit
of team line-ups yet, I give the Boks a 45 percent chance of getting over this
That’s a pretty reasonable shout, isn’t it?
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing