“You will never be entirely comfortable. This is the truth behind a champion – he is always fighting something. To do otherwise is to settle.” – Julien Smith
(Photo: Adelaide Now)
Heyneke Meyer was always going to face criticism in his appointment as head coach of the Springboks back in early 2012, from his coaching style to his player selection; but it’s the biggest enemy of the Springboks of recent years which will be haunting him most this morning.
The contented early satisfaction of the hunger that saw the Boks draw with England and Argentina last year, that saw a merely adequate performance in Mendoza a month ago and was present in front of a Newlands crowd against Australia in the second half last night.
In a match that potentially would give the Springboks their best platform to snatch the Rugby Championship from the All Blacks and hold the title for the first time since 2009, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Boks had the capacity to ravage an undermanned Wallabies unit in Cape Town. Indeed, it was almost expected that a bonus point win was a given at half time, with the scorecard reading 23-3 and the Boks in devastating form. But the continuance of that form faltered with the South Africans yet again failing to play out the full eighty minutes.
The Bok captain, Jean de Villiers, put it eloquently in his post match interview, by stating “I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed after beating Australia by 20 points.” He was right – the Boks knew a bonus point win was the only way to put the hand on the throat of the All Blacks and apply intense pressure before their final test in Johannesburg next week, yet they failed to capitalise on the obvious lack of confidence and continued structure in the Wallaby camp.
Whilst lack of solid resolution and vacillation is currently one of the biggest problems in the Australian squad, it appears that an underlying issue of similar magnitude may exist in the Bok structure.
The Wallabies have been terrible in the last twelve months with as many issues off field as on field and after the belting at Suncorp Stadium under a month ago, leaving South Africa with a loss of only 20 points would be of some, albeit little, comfort. With many fans expecting a similar score line to the one in Brisbane – the match which saw the Springboks smash a 40 odd year curse – it was with some surprise that a similar result was not replicated on home soil from the men in green.
The killer instinct that would have propelled the Boks into championship favouritism was sorely missed in one of the more lacklustre second halves in test rugby this year.
Their hunger was non-existent. Their focus and as a result, their discipline, had as many holes as Swiss cheese and ultimately cumulated in a nervous few days waiting on the citing commissioner after some thuggish moments from Flip van der Merwe and Jannie du Plessis – not the most ideal preparation for a team coming into their biggest match since the Rugby World Cup two years ago.
Be physical, yes. The South Africans are renowned for being physical . But be smart when being physical.
Granted, it was always going to be more difficult to focus on last night’s match than the one in Brisbane for the Springboks. Their main objective for this series is clearly the match at Eden Park and the Boks would be priming themselves for that. Yet the All Blacks – who would be looking ahead as well – managed to pull off another clinical victory in Argentina this morning and will head to Johannesburg buoyed with their result. The Boks, however, will not.
Believing that a victory last night was not necessarily a bad thing, but in the words of William Pollard, “The arrogance of success is to think that what we did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow.”
So what causes this continual “game of two halves”?
It was reported earlier this month that the Springboks were too nice for their own good; that they were their own worst enemies when it came down to sportsmanship, and perhaps this is correct. After all, the evidence of de Villiers himself was potentially the main reason for Ma’a Nonu to escape a “please explain” from the citing commissioner after the Eden Park debacle. But is it being too nice that is causing the complacency and lack of focus to finish the matches they should be grabbing by the horns and obliterating their opposition?
It’s doubtful. There are plenty of teams in international sport that maintain the killer instinct yet play the game in the full spirit intended. There’s a chasm of difference between being cut throat and being dirty. The old school of thought that “one should never embarrass the opposition as one never knows when the favour will be returned” is rarely abided by in the professional era, so it’s unlikely that even transgresses into the minds of players. So what is holding the Boks back?
There’s no doubt that the squad has come a long way in the last twelve months. Their attack is stronger, their work at a breakdown is becoming one of their strongest weapons on a world stage and the transition from the backline (largely thanks to the inclusion of Willie le Roux) has become a thing of beauty. But there’s a restraint that is preventing the Boks from being the best that they can be.
Perhaps it is a confidence issue. The Boks have the ability to destroy any team in the world on their day, yet more often than not, opt for safe options instead of taking a risk. Perhaps it is a mental fitness instead of a physical one that is preventing them from regaining the world number one ranking. Mental fatigue leads to lack of focus and it wouldn’t have required a rocket scientist to know that leading with a forearm after the Bismarck du Plessis issue in Auckland was not one of van der Merwe’s brightest ideas. Perhaps the substitutes need to be used more consistently and player rotation utilised more effectively given the length of a rugby season.
Whatever it is, there is something holding back the Springboks from transforming from the hunters to the hunted. Until it’s addressed, the All Blacks will remain without peer – something that no Australian wants to see.