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  • Things We Learned: South Africa vs Australia

    1) The impact player concept is alive and well. 2) Springbok scrumhalves can be allowed to base their game around their strengths, not just the box kick. 3) As long as you are solid in defence and in the set piece, intent and style can trump execution. 4) Some positional arguments in the Australian backline are being settled. 5) We just can't get enough of Nigel Owens.


    1. The impact player concept is alive and well.

    When the Springbok team was selected for this test match, everyone took note of the quality and experience of the substitutes. It was clear that their involvement off the bench would be a key facet of this test because, as Peter de Villiers no doubt would have said, “You don’t pick a bunch of vintage cars just to keep them parked in the garage”.

    All the key substitutions came on in the second half with the Springboks being 2 points behind and the game ended with them winning by 18 points. ‘Impact’ almost seems like an understatement.

    Almost all substitutes deserved to get singled out even though it’s hard to do so. In the forwards, there were huge second half carries everywhere from Schalk Burger to Bakkies Botha to Bismarck du Plessis.

    In terms of backline changes, Patrick Lambie’s general play from flyhalf was excellent. We can debate whether he could’ve been given more starting opportunities under Heyneke Meyer like Handre Pollard has enjoyed recently, but nevertheless, him being used for 20 minutes (with the game still being ‘alive’ in terms of the score) is a big progression for him in his international career.

    This is not a case of looking at the bench and questioning why they didn’t start in the first place. Even though the Springboks were behind on the scoreboard, plenty of work had been done in the first three quarters of the game by the Springboks to ‘loosen’ the game up at the end.

    It was then a case of putting quality players with fresh legs on to take advantage of a period that, if you’ve softened the opposition up, can become some sort of ‘happy hour’ when it comes to point-scoring.

    The Springboks led the way in the possession and territory stakes the whole game. The Wallabies were organised in defence and tackled well to keep them at bay for 70 minutes. However, when faced with fresh impetus after a long, physical day, their line speed got slower and their tackling got sloppier.

    A place on the bench doesn’t have to be viewed as a selection snub. The days of placing all the emphasis on the starting 15 are gone. Rather, the team has to be viewed in the context of its whole matchday 23.

    2. Springbok scrumhalves can be allowed to base their game around their strengths, not just the box kick.

    So many question marks surrounded Francois Hougaard going into this match. Thankfully, he was allowed to answer them by not fulfilling playing roles imposed upon him, but rather by trying to play in the same way that made him a noticeable scrumhalf in the first place.

    Only 2 box kicks were hoisted by Hougaard in the whole game compared to the 6 that he made in the test in New Zealand (in a game that he didn’t start and where he enjoyed less possession). Instead, the first instinct was to look for the pass. His second instinct was to break. That’s exactly how Francois Hougaard should play scrumhalf.

    This is great news not just for Hougaard, but for Cobus Reinach too. Now, as a young scrumhalf with more of an eye for the break than a kick (and maybe even more than the pass), he can see that when Fourie du Preez is not around. the Springbok coach will let a scrumhalf play to his strengths and not just try to make him impersonate Fourie du Preez.

    3. As long as you are solid in defence and in the set piece, intent and style can trump execution.

    So, the Springboks spent most the of the game not being completely accurate in their attacking moves, they had precious few game-breaking bursts until the last 10 minutes and the place-kicking operated at only 33%.

    Yet, not only did they beat Australia, they did so comfortably.

    Why? Because solid foundations were laid in the set piece (mainly the line-out, as there were far fewer scrums) that gave the team the opportunity to respect possession. And respect it they did.

    Throw in a defence that absorbed a lot of match pressure, and you had a situation where the Springboks could just keep stretching the Australians and keep them tackling. Even though they weren’t spending all their possession perfectly executing scything strike moves, they kept wearing Australia down and cashed in later.

    When a game has been lost and the in-field kicking has been criticised, we often hear something along the lines of “It’s not the game plan that’s wrong. The execution of it was poor.”

    Here, we have a situation where the execution wasn’t always perfect, but the game plan covered for it.

    It’s worth noting that the Wallabies had to make 97 more tackles than New Zealand ended up making when they played the Springboks in Wellington (and the Wallabies had a higher tackle success percentage than the All Blacks too).

    Now, with the All Blacks again on the horizon, the approach should be to test if:

    (a)  The Springbok set piece and defence can allow for more respect of their own possession.

    (b) They show that possession the requisite respect.

    (c)  The All Blacks can be broken down more if they are asked to tackle more.

    The Springboks will probably need to show better execution in the opening 60 minutes against the All Blacks than they showed against the Wallabies. That said, there was enough in this game against Australia that shows that when the Springboks play the All Black test, the Springboks might not be the only ones getting tested.

    4. Some positional arguments in the Australian backline are being settled.

    Australian backlines down the years have often been incredibly difficult to select. This is not just because they’ve had loads of talented players to choose from, but also because they are not sure who should play where.

    Take Adam Ashley-Cooper for instance. Classy player, and currently an absolute selection must. He’s played centre, wing and fullback for the Wallabies, and even though Super Rugby proved that outside centre is probably his best position, his country needs him more on the wing.

    Why? Because Tevita Kuridrani has shown that he has to stay at outside centre. He had an excellent game on Saturday, and he settles a big issue for Ewen McKenzie.

    McKenzie has got quite a few more backline issues to work out in the more inside positions what with players Kurtley Beale and Will Genia floating around, but you get the feeling that while Australia still have quite a lot of work to do to, the coach is on a good track.

    5. We just can’t get enough of Nigel Owens.

    Another Rugby Championship that has had its fair share of refereeing drama, and another Rugby Championship where Nigel Owens has come in late to restore more admiration for the profession.

    We just can’t get enough of Nigel Owens. Hey, we even love him so much, we even heaped praise on him after the Springboks lost the game he officiated last year.

    As is usually the case when the Welshman referees a test, the game flowed into something that could be entertaining throughout. For instance, while there were only 7 scrums in the whole game, there were no scrum penalties and no collapsed scrums.

    Is that because he wasn’t overly strict in that area? Was it because the players know they have less chance of getting away with being sneaky? Was it because Owens is just plain lucky?

    Who cares? The bottom line is that the game is better when Owens is there. Throw in clear, sensible communication with the TMO as well as the players, and we’ve got a rugby product that’s just there to be respected as well as enjoyed.

  • Things We Learned: New Zealand vs the Springboks

    1) The Springboks are able to absorb a lot of All Black pressure. 2) The pre-programming of scrumhalves to box kick must be rethought. 3) The Handre Pollard future is now. 4) All Black players are defining themselves in key moments of the game. 5) Getting your 100th cap in New Zealand is awesome.


    1. The Springboks are able to absorb a lot of All Black pressure.

    Considering the All Blacks had 61% possession, 61% territory, made twice as many runs as the Springboks for more than twice as many metres gained and made three times as many passes, how did they only score 14 points in total?

    The reason is the Springboks absorbed a hell of a lot of pressure in a variety of ways.

    As they say, it starts up front and the set piece didn’t disappoint. Well, for most of the time. There was a dodgy 10-minute period from when Bismarck du Plessis came on. Otherwise, the Springbok pack looked pretty damn good in their scrum and line-out drills. That limited the ‘go forward’ nature of All Black ball.

    Also, work on the ground was immense to stifle/turnover plenty of All Black ball. When you look at loose forward balance, while some of the runs with the ball are a bit less powerful when Willem Alberts is not available, you certainly gain a whole lot in turnover work when Marcell Coetzee is partnering Francois Louw.

    As for Duane Vermeulen, well, he was just immense full stop. While that's often the case with him, it seems to be especially so when he’s up against the All Blacks.

    There’s also the most obvious way to absorb pressure: tackling. The Springboks made loads. After a couple of dodgy weeks in the defence out wide, they put in a defensive display that hardly missed a beat. To think that the All Blacks had all that ball and only scored one try from an obligatory Kieran Read miracle moment.

    When it comes to playing the All Blacks, you really can’t ask for more than keeping them down to 14 points. At the risk of sounding simplistic, you just have to make a plan to score more than that.

    2. The pre-programming of scrumhalves to box kick must be rethought.

    Kicking the ball in open play is always a quality vs quantity argument. When it comes to the scrumhalf box kicking genre, the Springboks are falling short on both sides of the argument.

    It started with Ruan Pienaar and continued with Francois Hougaard. Between the two of them, they put up 8 box kicks. Out of those 8, only 2 were accurate enough to have the chase put the All Black receiver under any pressure at all (a rate of 25%). Notably, none of them resulted in a turnover of possession.

    On the other side, Aaron Smith tried 3 box kicks (and he had more possession/opportunities to box kick if he wanted to, of course). While none of them resulted in a turnover of possession, all 3 were accurate enough to chase and put the Springbok receiver under pressure (a rate of 100%).

    So, the box kicking of Springbok scrumhalves is far less accurate than Aaron Smith, yet they do it far more. That surely can’t make sense.

    This tactic has to be rethought, especially against the All Blacks. After all, they responded to getting bombed by high balls and losses to the Springboks in 2009 by filling their team with high ball experts. You can’t seem to kick a high ball anywhere against the All Blacks these days without it landing straight to someone that can play fullback at a truly world class level.

    That, or it lands to the huge Julian Savea. Remember when the overriding theory for huge All Black wingers like him was try to and kick the ball behind them to make them turn? Aah...those were the days.

    You can probably argue that a propensity to box kick is better when Fourie du Preez is dictating play and that he’s a better exponent and judge of when to do so. Even if it would be better when he’s around, when he’s not, Springbok scrumhalves have to try and play to different strengths and stop trying to fit themselves into Fourie du Preez shaped holes.

    3. The Handre Pollard future is now.

    That’s it. We’ve seen enough. Don’t wait. Give the boy an extended run in the jersey.

    It was probably Heyneke Meyer’s boldest Springbok selection to date when he made Handre Pollard the youngest ever Springbok flyhalf to start a test match in New Zealand. Pollard spent the full 80 minutes showing that he doesn’t have to be overly wrapped in cotton wool in order to protect future interests. He’s proved he can contribute now, so let’s keep his development in the Springbok jersey going.

    For a start, it was rejuvenating to have a flyhalf that’s not on a default up and under setting. Pollard offered a lot from his out of hand kicking in that he has more of an eye for space to kick into. Hopefully that trait won’t get stifled in his development and hopefully he can keep it up when his scrumhalves aren’t taking up most of the kicking duties.

    The (beautiful) try by Cornal Hendricks showed that if you give Pollard good ball on attack against anybody, he can attack flat in a way that gives his outside runners nice options to run off. We all knew this to be the case against lesser opposition, of course. Now we have confirmation after the playing the very best.

    He even brought out a cheeky drop kick that was successful in a tight game.

    All of which screams that Pollard's Springbok future is not just the future. It’s now.

    He’ll go through games where he’ll make some mistakes, he probably won't have a 90% hit rate kicking for poles and he will (hopefully not often) be in situations where the forwards can’t give him front foot ball. Despite all that, he’s shown that not only should we give him the trust to deal with the rigours of being a Springbok flyhalf, we should just be damn excited about it.

    4. All Black players are defining themselves in the key moments of the game.

    In test cricket, they talk of ‘key sessions’ ad nauseum when it’s an opportunity seemingly more important than others to assert dominance. If that could be used in a rugby context, the All Blacks won all their key sessions against the Springboks.

    The margins between success and failure in this test were small with the key moments standing out from their world class players. It was mentioned earlier that Kieran Read has at least one obligatory miraculous moment per game, and it just had to be a magic offload from a cross kick in a penalty advantage situation.

    Essentially, the All Blacks used the advantage as an opportunity for a cross kick ‘Hail Mary’. Read answered their prayers and provided the moment to totally change the game’s complexion.

    Who was there to finish the try off? Richie McCaw. Of course it was him.

    In the backline, Ma’a Nonu going off for a broken arm was a huge moment that tested how the All Blacks could cover his loss. Up stepped Ben Smith into inside centre for a change, and he was brilliant. It was another massive contribution in a key moment.

    As for the period when the Springboks brought on their new hooker? Of course they used it as a time to attack the line-outs and the set piece in general, and they were successful. The result could well have been different had they been slightly less successful in unsettling Bismarck du Plessis, but they won that key moment.

    On that note, you might be surprised that this piece hasn’t jumped on what seems to be the common trend of speaking out against pre-determined substitutions. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s a thing we’ve learned before (click here to read about last year's game vs New Zealand, point number 4), when the substitution’s timing was far worse in that it was the instant of a pressure 5-metre scrum.

    Secondly, there was a lot of merit in bringing du Plessis on with 25 minutes to go without hindsight. He’s a world class hooker that’s been a part of great Springbok line-outs and great Springbok scrums. If the substitution came off, his part in that key moment could’ve been successfully breaking up the game with his fresh legs and skill set. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

    Back to the All Blacks, they ended off by winning probably the most important ‘session’: the last 10 minutes. The Springboks assaulted their goal line in that period, and they were up to the challenge and fended it all off.

    5. Getting your 100th cap in New Zealand is awesome.

    Before the game, it seemed a slight pity that Jean de Villiers didn’t get to enjoy the occasion of his 100th cap at home. That assertion could not have been more wrong.

    Richie McCaw’s words to him in the post-match presentation as well as his gift from the team made the moment incredibly special. It was a wonderful personalisation in the all too often stale setting of the post-match presentation.

    It felt like a tip of the cap not just to de Villiers, but to the ethos of camaraderie in rugby that’s often looked like it’s been left in the amateur days. While these guys just seem to be playing each other constantly in the modern schedules, it’s great to confirm that respect from the All Blacks has not become stale.

    Also, what a nice touch it was to include Bryan Habana as well. As a 100th cap gift from New Zealand, he gets some respectful, public words and a signed bottle of bubbly. All he got from Australia was a yellow card.

    The New Zealand captain paying his respects to the Springbok legends seemed more important to him than actually collecting the Freedom Cup. That's as it should be.

    Nice touch, Richie. The respect is mutual. Now get back to the right side of the ruck, you sneaky bastard.

  • Things We Learned: Australia vs the Springboks

    1) If you have a basic game plan, you leave yourself open to basic errors costing you more. 2) Referees have got to start helping themselves. 3) There were positives and they have to be acknowledged otherwise all recollections of the match will result in an all consuming darkness conquering all thought which, according to the laws of entropy, will render you into a functionless, whimpering vessel cowering under the duvet in the foetal position. 4) It's not that rosy in the Wallaby camp either. 5) Ashwin Willemse is on fire.


    1. If you have a basic game plan, you leave yourself open to basic errors costing you more.

    Morne Steyn missing that touch kick was as symbolic of the whole Springbok performance as it was painful.

    Sure, he could’ve made touch, let Victor Matfield inevitably win a line-out, let his teammates wind the clock down and the Springboks would’ve ticked the most important winning box, but don’t let that one ‘could have been’ moment gloss over a plethora of other disappointing kicks.

    No doubt the rain played its part in the Springboks (over) simplifying their game into being even more of an up and under one based on territory. Let’s momentarily ignore the merits of such simplicity .The bottom line is that even if a Springbok team is going to go about a game dominated by this strategy, these simple skills need to be executed almost perfectly for there to be any chance of a top Springbok team performance.

    The reality was that these kicks weren’t executed properly nearly enough, especially considering how often it was done. If there were less kicks that were hard to chase, less kicks that put Wallabies into space and less kicks that went out on the full, the Springboks would’ve won comfortably.

    Whether that type of win would’ve been completely satisfactory is a different story. Sure, it would’ve been enough to comfortably get past a Wallaby side that isn’t quite firing, but it definitely wouldn’t serve as a blueprint to beat the All Blacks (which is definitely the standard we should be trying to overcome, right?).

    As for the merits of such simplicity, it just makes the lack of a Plan B all the more obvious and comforting to your opponents. When it’s overdone, it can also be tragically uninspiring. For example, there’s not much in the world more depressing than young Jan Serfontein’s up and under 25 metres out from the Wallaby try line with men outside him when the referee is playing a penalty advantage.

    We’ve often heard how it’s not just the volume of kicking, it’s the quality. That includes open play kicks that aren’t up and unders too. The Wallabies put in two grubber kicks that created intense try line pressure for the Springboks. The Springboks put in one that skewed off the boot, trickled into the middle of the field and put themselves under pressure.

    Considering the Springboks have already used 2 get out of jail free cards this year to escape defeat against Wales and Argentina, it felt that karma had to square the Springboks up with Krishna and make their shortcomings give their opponents one of those cards too. That kick missing touch was a poorly executed simple kick that was as painful as it was apt of the whole Springbok performance.

    2. Referees have got to start helping themselves.

    While George Clancy didn’t quite go the full Poite, some decisions must be looked at as yet another indication of referees not helping themselves even when they have mechanisms in place to do so.

    When it comes to Duane Vermeulen’s tackle being penalised in the first half, one has to question whether Clancy was in sufficient refereeing form for the occasion of a big test (whether he had his ‘eye in’, so to speak). How can you explain that fantastic, perfectly legal tackle getting penalised other than Clancy was just so taken aback from how devastating the tackle actually was that he assumed there must be something illegal about it?

    It seems that all Rugby Championship referees have learned from the Poite incident is that tackles like that don’t get a yellow card. One would’ve hoped they’d have learned a whole lot more.

    As for the Bryan Habana yellow card incident, let’s ignore the sad tinge that the incident put on a monumental occasion for him. Let's even ignore exactly how costly that decision was. Let’s even (momentarily) ignore the inconsistency that was shown by not punishing a similar tackle on Jean de Villiers (which was saliently pointed out at the time by the captain himself).

    Rather, let’s look at just how many opportunities Clancy had to help himself from making the wrong decision and how he didn’t take any of them.

    As soon as the Habana tackle happened, he blew his whistle and reached for a yellow card (ie he’s made his mind up). The touch judge has flagged and warned him that it might not be a yellow card (opportunity number 1). The captain has come over and given a fine argument as to why it shouldn’t be a yellow card offence (opportunity number 2). It’s put up on the big screen, yet the TMO isn’t heard on the matter (and that's strike 3), resulting in Habana wrongfully being sin binned.

    We accept that referees make mistakes. That’s why modern day rugby has provided mechanisms with assistants, technology and TMOs to help them. If referees continually refuse to use these mechanisms to help themselves, then this has to fall into the file labelled “totally unacceptable”.

    If you’re looking for another appropriate case study to use as Exhibit B, look no further than the same weekend when the All Blacks hosted Argentina. Pascal Gauzere’s performance showed some other varieties of mishaps, but they fell into the same file and for the same reasons.

    While teams should try to focus on themselves and see if they did well in their own performance with the refereeing hand that was dealt to them, referees just have to ensure that they are dealing a full deck of cards.

    Metaphorically speaking, of course.

    3. There were positives and they have to be acknowledged otherwise all recollections of the match will result in nothing but an all consuming darkness conquering all thought which, according to the laws of entropy, will render you into a functionless, whimpering vessel cowering under the duvet in the foetal position.

    So let’s get started, shall we?

    The Springbok defence was fantastic at times. It was a performance that was top and tailed by tries where more could have been done to prevent them, but it was a game where the Wallabies could’ve definitely scored more. Hey, heaven knows the Springboks gave them enough ball for them to do so.

    Some turnover battles at ruck time were of a really high quality. We’re becoming used to that from the likes of Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen and Bismarck du Plessis. Now you can start adding Marcell Coetzee to the list as someone who contributes regularly to this cause in tests. There was even a cheeky Jan Serfontein hands on the ball moment to act as a cherry on top of that department.

    The scrums went forward more often than not too. While the Wallaby scrum standard will be questioned, the scrum really needed a positive boost after falling short in 5 out of the previous 6 games in 2014. The first scrum penalty and all the celebratory emotional release from the forwards that came with it showed how important it was to all of them just to start feeling positive about it. Shoot, Jannie du Plessis even brought out a smile. It’s surprising that he has any energy left to do so.

    The line-outs were as good as you can hope for. 14 out of 14 won on their own throw in and 3 stolen from the Australian hooker. Of course, that just makes missing touch from a penalty in the dying minutes all the more irritating...

    4. It’s not that rosy in the Wallaby camp either.

    What should be really concerning for Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie is that the Springboks offered up a game plan that was not just predictable to the point of caricaturing their own stereotype, but was also poorly executed and yet the Wallabies still came so close to losing.

    In a game of difficult weather conditions and both teams desperate to right their previous match’s wrongs, it was always destined to be ugly. However, while beating the Springboks for the first time as a coach will tick the most important box, McKenzie’s team gave him plenty to bitch about in the Monday video session.

    For starters, they were certainly not the only team putting in pointless kicks (not as many as their opponents, but more than enough to irritate their coach). There was also the occasional ill-conceived run from their own 22 which made them lose possession and cost them points. There was also the odd fruitless, eyebrow-raising decision to tap and go from deep within their half (one of them from their captain).

    Throw in a scrum that finished second best and a line-out that couldn’t assert itself at all, and you have a whole lot that a couple of good Waratah touches can’t completely gloss over.

    Judging by McKenzie’s post-match reaction in the press, he’s not prepared to gloss over the faults in the Wallaby performance either. Many South Africans are lamenting that Heyneke Meyer doesn’t behave similarly to the public. Let’s hope his words are different in the changing room.

    5. Ashwin Willemse is on fire.

    The last 2 years in the SuperSport rugby studio has almost unapologetically been all about Nick Mallett (with a couple institutionalised Naas Botha soundbites thrown in). However, in the last 2 Springbok games, something has lit a fire under Ashwin Willemse that has made him not only key in an enthralling triple act of rugby debate, but it’s also made the debate itself far more enthralling than the Springbok game.

    Beforehand, there was an air of patronisation all around Willemse (it hasn’t completely gone away). For a while, his pre-game role was not much more than an obligatory quick camera cut where he would smile, predict a 45-point win for the Lions (regardless if they were playing or not) while his half-time and post-match role was no more than a touchscreen highlighter. “Just stand there and highlight where Willie le Roux is entering the line, Ashwin. Nick is busy telling everybody how to think.”

    Now, after he’s pulled up a post-match chair, he’s letting fly. He’s not just smiling and selling a positive rugby outlook. He’s unearthing a heap of suppressed aggression on Springbok tactics as well as selection. He’s even questioning Mallett (gasp!) and, no doubt with a tip of the cap to Peter de Villiers, he’s throwing in odd metaphors involving referees and a set of car keys. It's all broadcasting gold.

    If Willemse keeps this up, not only should he be given a touchscreen break from the Currie Cup afternoon shift, those Currie Cup kick-off times can all be put back while we let him finish.


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