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  • Things We Learned: Argentina vs the Springboks

    1) Scrums are now in a code red situation 2) Decision-makers need to get more involved when the setpiece is failing. 3) 2014 is turning into a test of character, even in games where it shouldn't be tested so much. 4) Argentina are on the up. 5) The TMO you have dialled is unavailable at present. Please try again later.


    1. Scrums are now in a code red situation.

    The Springbok scrum was dominated so much at one point, it would have been a bona fide tactic for Argentina to knock the ball on.

    Warning lights have been flashing for the whole international season around the scrum (that was the fourth test in a row that the scrum didn’t fire, and five games out of six if you include all the tests and the World XV game). Now there are red flashes all over it, along with the beeping noise when a large truck reverses, because that was a whole lot of weight going backwards.

    The scrums in the first half were nothing short of disastrous. While they might not encounter a scrumming effort as impressive as that Argentinean effort again this season, there is no way that the Springboks can just look at a scrum getting shoved off the ball so dramatically and write it off as just something that happens sometimes.

    As for the personnel involved, the situation screams out for individuals needing a break. The du Plessis brothers are good scrummagers that have played a silly amount of rugby recently, especially Jannie. His back-up prop Frans Malherbe shored things up a lot when he came on, but in doing so, injured himself for the rest of the season. That just makes the chances of the first choice tighthead getting some rest changing from slim to none.

    Gurthro Steenkamp might have had a good outing against Wales in June, but he was shown up dramatically against the Pumas. Much has been said about Lood de Jager’s technique, which needs to get straightened up, as well as some settling on a lock combination for the year. That was the fifth different lock combination in five tests, which can’t be helping the scrumming situation.

    While the Springboks managed to snare another win despite their scrumming problems, they’re surely going to run out of get out of jail free cards soon.

    2. Decision-makers need to get more involved when the setpiece is failing.

    A Springbok team will never assume that their scrum will go backwards for a game, but if you don’t have solutions for how to try and get some control in the game when it does, that’s pretty much the definition of not having a Plan B.

    While the situation wasn’t easy, there didn’t seem to be enough scruff-of-the-neck-taking from decision-makers with the ball that they did get. Players numbered 9 through to 13 looked second best to their opponents pretty much the whole game. While they got worse ball than their opponents, there are still ways to try and get into the game other than holding up your hands and bemoaning the scrum. After all, they get ball in other situations too.

    Handre Pollard and Damian de Allende are newcomers to test rugby who must be quite wide-eyed at all the pressure they’ve been thrust into. While Ruan Pienaar had glimpses of calming things, the comparison between his influence and Fourie du Preez’s could well be the starkest between a Springbok first and second choice. After injury disruption, Jean de Villiers looks like he hasn’t got into the season yet. Well, the Springboks need him to, and quickly.

    The Springboks had a more than iffy day kicking out of hand as well. From skewing it out on the full to kicking it over the dead ball line, they found ways to relieve pressure for the opposition too often. Their opponents looked more confident and accurate with the boot even after they had been turned around. That’s not a good look for the Springboks.

    It’s not just with ball in hand either where decision-making needs to come to the fore. Defence looked a muddle at times, especially out wide. Two of the Argentinean tries showed insufficient communication and shifting across to snuff out threats. That’s a type of option-taking that was incorrect.

    It certainly all starts up front, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end there if the scrums go pear-shaped.

    3. 2014 is turning into a test of character, even in games where it shouldn’t be tested so much.

    While people are annoyed with soundbites like “The guys showed great character to get out of trouble” after a game like this because they feel it’s just a kop out to avoid highlighting what got the team into trouble in the first place, it is nonetheless a positive, and quite a big one too.

    The last 20 minutes of that game were dealt with excellently by the Springboks. While the patroninsing caveat of “It’s just Argentina” keeps ringing around the fixture, the bottom line is that the Springboks came back from being 12 points down against a side playing very well at home. It is something that deserves a fair amount of credit.

    Contributions off the bench changed the game completely. The new front row halted Argentinean dominance, Adriaan Strauss showed clear contributions in all areas (including leadership) and the go-forward ball offered by Marcell Coetzee provided a platform to work on that was desperately needed.

    While Morne Steyn is often derided within his own country, it’s worth noting that he didn’t miss a place kick in that comeback. All those kicks were laced with pressure and they weren’t all bang in front either.

    While all the post-game character praising echoes what occurred against Wales in Nelspruit earlier this year, it would be nice if these comeback situations could be avoided all together. However, if the  team does get itself into trouble, it’s nice to know that there are calm heads permeating all over the matchday 23 that are able to get out of it.

    4. Argentina are on the up.

    There’s been so much disappointment shown by the public after an away win, which entrenches the idea that Argentina deserve to be treated a peg lower than the rugby elite. So far, this year’s Rugby Championship has shown great improvement from the Pumas to change that and long may it continue.

    That was a rough test match offered up by the Pumas. Their scrums were awesome, their kicks were on point and their defence was aggressive, to name a few good elements of play amongst many. Sure, they didn’t close out a winning position all that well, but that could well come with more time spent in winning positions.

    Argentina’s new coach and captain have shown that this is a regime that is not just going to collect their Rugby Championship wooden spoon every year and thank SANZAR for having them. They are improving and a win is looking inevitable at some point (well, certainly against the Springboks).

    One of their biggest problems in the past has been their inability to keep up with the intensity of the tournament throughout. Hopefully they can show a more prolonged impact this year.

    5. The TMO you have dialled is not available at present. Please try again later.

    Early in the game, referee Steve Walsh wanted to check on some possible foul play, but couldn’t get hold of the TMO even though the officials tried to phone him. It would be funny if it wasn’t so...actually, it’s just funny.

    This is not the first time that TMO help has been less than available in test matches in Argentina. Last year, there were also technical glitches in Mendoza when Jean de Villiers begged for some foul play to be checked. While Steve Walsh might be enjoying the focus staying on himself, the rest of us would enjoy the opposite.

    Issues for the TMOs in Argentina don’t end at communication problems either. There don’t seem to be enough cameras at the ground that other SANZAR venues enjoy, and the cameras that are there seem to go into football broadcasting mode and shoot the action from too far away. Good thing we didn’t get any better angles on that Cornal Hendricks try...

    Let’s get a situation where the same standard of technology is available to all TMOs in SANZAR games. Give them all the necessary technology, and let's not let embarrassing technical errors come into it. After all, TMOs have proven time and time again that they are quite capable of embarassing errors on their own.

  • Things We Learned: Springboks vs Argentina

    1) The Springboks have to work on some rainy weather Plan Bs. 2) 2014 really hasn't been a good year for the Springbok scrum. 3) Argentina are much better prepared for this tournament than they have been in the past. 4) Heyneke doesn't trust all his subs. 5) Owen Nkumane needs to hone up on his interpreter interview protocol.


    1. The Springboks have to work on some rainy weather Plan Bs.

    In rugby, there are rainy conditions and there are rainy conditions. This test at Loftus fell into the latter category when the Springboks weren’t even expecting the former.

    No Springbok exemplified the original plans not suiting the conditions more than Handre Pollard. It was expected to be an ideal way to blood a promising young playmaker on a dry August day at his familiar home ground. It ended up being a pressure filled nightmare behind a pack going backwards in an apocalyptic downpour.

    Pollard didn’t adapt appropriately, and he wasn’t alone.

    In what was always going to be some somewhat levelling conditions, it should always be about just being in the opposition half. Accurate kicking with distance was the order of the day. Forget what the public have complained about in the past about predictable kick and chase Springbok rugby. This test called for Bullsy rugby, not ballsy rugby.

    Also, it’s really not the time for gung-ho touchline penalty kick decisions. With 16 minutes left, a 7-point lead and only 1 try scored, just take the 3 points and a win. Sure, Jean de Villiers may have looked inspired if the Springboks had driven over and scored, but neither the match conditions nor the  way the line-outs suggested that he should’ve bet on rolling maul success.

    Of course, this all has a preparation for next year’s World Cup context about it. In England next year, some games will be rainy and some will be rainy.

    2. 2014 really hasn’t been a good year for the Springbok scrum so far.

    Wet weather rugby really is a whole lot harder when your scrum is going backwards because the handling conditions are less conducive for your playmakers to bail your forwards out. While the Springboks seemed to spend the entire match under serious pressure from the Argentinean pack, it exaggerated an area where the Springboks really haven’t started the year well.

    It’s been four test matches and an outing against a World XV for the Springboks in 2014 so far, and out of those five games, only one of them has produced a definitive thumbs up scrumming performance (namely the first test against Wales, where Gurthro Steenkamp cashed in on a sentimental 50th cap selection only to be discarded from the matchday 23 later).

    With so much disruption around the locks (there’s been a different lock combination for every test so far this year) and some loosehead prop disruption compounded by injury to Beast Mtawarira, the Springboks haven’t been settled in their tight five in 2014. It’s been showing.

    It’s an area where the Springboks excelled in 2013 and an area where dominance is expected. Warnings have sounded throughout the international season so far. Now it needs to get solved.

    3. Argentina are much better prepared for this tournament than they have been in the past.

    In their opening two seasons in the Rugby Championship, Argentina’s opening game performances against South Africa varied from being flat to downright abysmal.

    On the third time of asking, in conditions that favoured their style, they’ve turned in their best performance in South Africa ever (and that includes the time they nearly won against Rudolf Straueli’s Springboks in 2003, which was an Argentinean performance not as impressive as this test match because hey, it was Rudolf Straueli’s Springboks).

    They were sensible in the wet weather, enjoyed dominance in the scrum and kept up their intensity for 80 minutes. From a side that has always looked woefully underprepared for the start of the tournament in previous years, this is a massive step forward.

    Last year, Argentina hired a new coach and he picked a new captain. It was a dawning of a new era that suggested needed ambition from Los Pumas. It showed that even though they were new to the big SANZAR show and that it was in the middle of their World Cup cycle, they weren’t just going to accept picking up their Rugby Championship wooden spoon and trust that improvement was going to be a given through exposure to better rugby.

    The last two tournaments have also shown that their performance improves almost unrecognisably when they cross the Atlantic to face the Springboks at home. Needless to say, next up, the Springboks have got a game that really puts the ‘test’ in ‘test match’.

    4. Heyneke doesn’t trust all his subs.

    Heyneke Meyer might be building a squad of players to choose from around his starting XVs, but he’s certainly not just going to thrust them into the test arena for the sake of it if he doesn’t think the match situation allows it.

    There’s been a taste of this in past test matches where Meyer only gives a couple of minutes to substitutes even though the game is well and truly won (most notably against Scotland earlier this year), usually in situations where he’s really been hit by injury or player unavailability and has found himself stuck with a bench full of personnel that really don’t fall into his World Cup plans.

    Now, if the game against Argentina is getting closer than expected, some substitutes get shown their place and they won’t get to enjoy a minute of action. There were 4 unused substitutes in this test. One wonders if they would’ve got some game time if Jean de Villiers had elected to go for poles with 16 minutes left and the Springboks went to a 10-point lead.

    Trevor Nyakane was a big case in point. With Beast Mtawarira just returning from injury and having a rough day at the office, Meyer still didn’t turn to Nyakane. It shows that he still needs time to shine in situations where the result has already been decided before Meyer trusts him to contribute when the game is still ‘alive’.

    Same has to ring true for Francois Hougaard, Oupa Mohoje and Jan Serfontein (although benching behind the captain complicates things). It could well make them hit the tackle bags harder in practice (provided they don’t just spend the whole of practice holding them).

    5. Owen Nkumane needs to hone up on his interpreter interview protocol.

    For the post-match interview, losing captain Agustin Creevy showed up with an interpreter. This one more mouth to feed with a microphone completely threw Owen Nkumane.

    What followed was a home run of awkwardness. From putting the microphone in front of the guy who wasn’t speaking, to eye contact with the wrong guy to asking questions that were particularly long winded and hard to translate...you name it, Owen did it.

    It highlights an age of extreme awkwardness in rugby interviews. Post-match presentations have been awkward for years, defined by out of breath automatic responses and sweaty faces covered in oh so conveniently available sponsored caps.

    The scourge of the half-time interview lives on and builds the awkwardness more (exemplified this test by Ruan Pienaar’s contribution, who after plying his trade in Ireland was clearly thrown by this abhorrent behaviour).

    In case your half-time isn’t filled with enough pointlessness, just before the second half kicks off, Robbie Kempson ends the half-time break spending his entire 2-question interview asking the Springbok backline coach about the scrum.

    Please, spare us from this deluge of awkward moments.

    For next time, could someone please just teach Creevy the phrase “110 percent” and spare us all.

  • Things We Learned: Super Rugby Final

    1) Boring finals rugby? What boring finals rugby? 2) Michael Cheika is building an incredible coaching career. 3) Adam Ashley-Cooper is a big game player. 4) Richie McCaw might be becoming a victim of his own reputation. 5) There are other overseas options that look good for South African rugby players other than Europe and Japan.


    1. Boring finals rugby? What boring finals rugby?

    If that was boring finals rugby, I don’t want it to ever be interesting.

    The Waratahs and the Crusaders showed that a final doesn’t just have to be an attritional battle of each other’s tensions that’s cloaked in the fear of making mistakes. It can be an occasion to showcase all sorts of skills and tactical plays that produces a complete playing product.

    From Kurtley Beale’s pinpoint long passes to Kieran Read’s fabulous offloads (is he contractually obligated to pull off at least one miraculous offload per game?), we saw loads of attacking skills to indulge in.

    Not that these two teams spent the 80 minutes naively throwing the ball around willy-nilly. Both teams busted a gut up front in order to earn their attacking rights, backed up by effective open play kicking along with a great showcase of pressure place-kicking from both teams.

    This 2014 edition could well be the greatest Super Rugby final ever. The only reason it’s a ‘could be’ instead of a ‘definitely’ is because no-one has any idea whether the 2006 final played in the fog was better or not.

    2. Michael Cheika is building an incredible coaching career,

    After becoming the first coach to win both Super Rugby and the Heineken Cup, Michael Cheika has secured his place in the Trivial Pursuit sports category forever.

    That achievement is incredibly impressive in itself. How he brought a first Super Rugby title to Sydney in the 2 years that he’s been there is also particularly eyebrow-raising.

    It’s not like he inherited a successful team to build upon. When Cheika started the job, the Waratahs were the 3rd placed team in Australia, miles off the playoff pace and regularly playing in a stadium less than a third full of fans who routinely booed what they were being offered.

    Now, after 2 years of Cheika, they end up leading the way on the log as well as the entertainment stakes and they have to move the final to a bigger national stadium in order to accommodate a record Super Rugby crowd in a country where it’s the third choice winter sport.

    Remember when we were indulging in the rivalry between Cheika and Jake White during the season? Well, Cheika won, in a big way.

    3. Adam Ashley-Cooper is a big game player.

    They call him Two Dads and he gave more than enough for both to be proud. Adam Ashley-Cooper joined an elite group of man of the match winners in a Super Rugby final and confirmed his place as a big game player.

    He hardly missed a beat in defence with his chopping tackles as well as providing the killer blows for two memorable tries. With all those around him giving silky passes and running around each other into space, the Waratahs needed one player to finish it off with strong, direct running lines. Ashley-Cooper’s game almost acted like a paraphrasing of that Morpheus quote from The Matrix. “Stop trying to score a try and score a try!”

    You’re never sure where to put Adam Ashley-Cooper in a Wallaby backline, but you’re always sure that he needs to be there.

    4. Richie McCaw might be becoming a victim of his own reputation.

    Richie McCaw got wrongfully penalised in the dying minutes of a big game for supposedly joining a ruck incorrectly. It’s like rain on your wedding day, but unlike the Alanis Morissette lyrics, this is actually ironic.

    After more than a decade of playing on the edge (and rightly so, because any international openside flank that isn’t on the edge isn’t close enough), he produces a high profile moment of not getting away with it.

    We can speculate why Craig Joubert got it wrong, but surely the fact that McCaw was part of the away side didn't help. Whenever he came up on the big screen after a penalty, plenty of boos could be heard from a 62 000 crowd

    Hey, it’s a penalty, and McCaw’s on the big screen. That means he must’ve done something wrong, right? After all, they say you even have to read his autobiography from the wrong side. Boo! Boo!

    We’ll see if it affects his penalty count for the All Blacks. We’ll get to find out quickly too, because the Super Rugby final was just a curtain raiser for the Bledisloe Cup.

    5. There are other overseas options that look good for South African rugby players other than Europe and Japan.

    2014 has shown South African rugby players that you don’t even have to leave Super Rugby to further your career overseas and enjoy success. A player can arrive in Australia as nothing more than a hired battering ram, expand his repertoire with game-breaking skills, play the whole tournament with a smile on his face and be involved in a team that ends up being better than the Bulls.

    And that’s just someone that joins the Force.

    Jacques Potgieter became the poster boy for how you can leave South Africa, improve and still be measured in a Super Rugby contest. Surely the only reason he wasn’t included in the Springbok squad is because he’s been playing in a particularly overstocked position when it comes to South African players.

    The Bulls offered him a chance to return home. He declined. It looks like an obvious decision.

    Can certain South African coaches take heed and try to make the domestic unions more attractive and fun to stay at? Maybe. Should South African players be encouraged to grow in a different environment while staying in Super Rugby so that they can still be measured against their local peers? Probably. Will we see more South Africans try to follow the Jacques Potgieter route? Definitely.

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