Negatives? Yes. Death knell? No.
MORE GLOOM, LESS DOOM
As coach speak goes, “We’ll take the positives” is not just a post-match platitude, it’s one of the most obvious ones of them all.
Of course people take positives from situations. How awful would life be if you didn’t? Taking positives after a loss shouldn’t be seen as just papering over cracks. It should be seen as obvious practice if you want to even bother getting out of bed and preparing for, say, playing the All Blacks on Saturday.
That said, after a loss, the negatives are obviously more important because therein lies the why.
Any cheap teambuilding manual will tell you to build on the positives and work on the negatives.
With that in mind, the nicest way that you can phrase it after that loss is that the Springboks still have a lot to work on.
Firstly, no matter what you think of the final TMO decision (this armchair TMO says fair try), that game was there to be wrapped up well before that took place. With a good scrum, forward momentum and a defence that was mostly doing just fine, a team should have all it needs to close out a game properly.
How did the Springboks botch up following through with a win after being 20-7 up just after half time? Well, let’s start with the most eye-popping statistic. In the second half, South Africa had 21% possession and 14% territory.
The Australians spent the vast majority of the half with the ball putting the Springboks under pressure. The Springboks kept failing in relieving it.
There were a few reasons for that and the most important ones were easier to spot. The scrum malfunctioned after the bench came on, David Pocock’s master cameo certainly didn’t help and the open play kicking just flat out didn’t work.
Everyone loves a bitch at how the Springboks kick. It’s a go-to knee jerk reaction after a loss even for fans that didn’t watch. “Boring old Boks back to their boring old kicking” and all that.
Usually, if the team’s kicking fails, it should be a debate as to whether the problem was execution or volume. In Brisbane, it was probably both.
Persisting with up and unders that don’t work can seem like continually banging your head against a brick wall. Bombing high balls against Australian players (who, if they play rugby union, they’ve definitely at least had a look at Aussie rules) can seem like continually banging your head against a brick wall that has a sign on it saying “Warning: banging your head against this wall will be sore”.
It screams of South African players resorting to a familiar yet very limited comfort zone. If they are going to seriously feature in this World Cup, they’re going to have to work kicking differently. If kicks can’t be contested effectively in the air, then they need to go into space. If the space isn’t there, keep the ball and work the opposition around until it is (unless you’ve organised enough space to run into, of course).
That’s all easier said than done, but hey, no-one’s ever claimed that winning the World Cup was easier done than said.
As for straight up exit rugby, that Springbok team looked to be light when it came to getting distance off the boot. Some players must either work on connecting their kicks better or Meyer must seriously think about bringing in players who will kick further. You can be as romantic as you want about running rugby, but it’ll all come to nought if you don’t have some decent clearing kicks to relieve pressure.
Even with all the minuses from that game, you still have a whole host of singular what ifs to choose from on what could have swung a mighty close game the Springboks way. A missed touch kick here, botching up running down the clock there as well as a touch and go TMO decision which, as modern rugby constantly shows us, will be everywhere.
You can choose any one of those that would’ve ended up being match-winning, but the truth is that winning is not the only thing. It’s definitely the most important, but it’s not the only thing. Especially in a World Cup build-up.
Say one of those what ifs did happen and South Africa won, it would be wrong to just take the win without taking the negatives. That would be papering over the cracks.
The important negatives don’t change regardless of the result.
As for positives, you can find quite a few without being too desperate in your digging. Some of them were even surrounded by pre-match question marks. All those fetchers in one team? Resulted in turnovers aplenty. Schalk Burger at number 8? Big tick. Jesse Kriel on test debut? Definitely earned another pre World Cup look. Lood de Jager on the back of a long injury? Sen-bloody-sational.
When you pair the above with what was mostly a fantastic defensive display, a couple of sexy tries and some sound scrumming from the old guard, you’ll find that the Springboks have plenty of things to build on.
Losing away to Australia in World Cup year is not a death knell. After all, South Africa lost there in 2007. So did New Zealand in 2011.
However, it’s now been 3 losses out of 4 test matches for South Africa and none of those games were against the All Blacks. They need to start winning if they want any kind of meaningful momentum going into the World Cup. Just judging a team on World Cup results is going full Straueli. Never go full Straueli.
1) The term 'senior player' has never looked more meaningless. 2) Warren Whiteley and his Lions team just get more and more likeable. 3) Don't blink when the Cheetahs are playing. 4) The Waratahs are done warming up. 5) Good thing we have Super Rugby to keep us grounded from all that 6 Nations basketball.
1. The term ‘senior player’ has never looked more meaningless.
An early Chiefs red card should have been an invitation for the Sharks to make sure that they keep their cool and spend the rest of the game leaning on the extra man advantage. Instead, they saw the Chiefs red card as an invitation to go down to that level and lower.
Here’s a lesson for the Rugby’ginners: the term ‘senior player’ isn’t just a cap count. It actually denotes responsibility.
Frans Steyn’s red card ended up being rescinded and fans will hope that brings an end to his flirting with disciplinary fire. As for the Bismarck du Plessis kick to the face, it’s impossible to overstress just how stupid it was, let alone dirty.
Surely du Plessis has left the union no option but to take the captaincy away from him. If not, it would show absolutely no respect for the responsibility the position brings.
As for the actual rugby, after they’d finished concluding the buy one red card get one free deal, the Sharks ironically showed great discipline and got a fine win over a Super Rugby contending team. You can’t get a clearer example of how working as a team trumps having individual stars on the field.
2. Warren Whitely and his Lions team just get more and more likeable.
If you needed a South African example of how to lead as a captain to juxtapose the Bismarck du Plessis one, look no further than Lions captain Warren Whiteley.
With 25 tackles, with so many good carries and so much emotion at the final whistle it was almost palpable, Whiteley set an excellent example that his team clearly followed.
It was another sucker punch type win for the Lions, again achieved with less than half of the possession as well as territory (which seems to be a type of win that’s getting more and more fashionable in rugby). It’s been a fine blueprint to rack up some wins on tour at least.
Next up for the Lions is a hapless looking Reds team for a possible third win on tour. If that’s achieved, it would not only be a first for the union, but it would be the joint best return for any South African Super Rugby tour.
3. Don't blink when the Cheetahs are playing.
Not only did the Crusaders vs Cheetahs game fall squarely into the great ‘game of two halves’ cliché, it was pretty much also a second half of two quarters.
The Cheetahs were leading 14-10 in the second half, and unless you’ve accidentally changed the channel from The Bachelor to Supersize vs Superskinny, you’ve never seen anything get so ugly so quickly.
Point flurries like that can happen if you drop your guard against New Zealand teams, particularly against the Crusaders. Hopefully the Cheetahs tighten up quickly on tour so as not to offer themselves up to their hosts as walking bonus points.
4. The Waratahs are done warming up.
Just when the Australian Conference threatened to become a one-Brumby race, the Waratahs came with a timely reminder of just who the champions actually are.
Michael Cheika’s team offered up some fine rugby and some fine entertainment on a Sunday (which is a day that must surely be used more often to ease up on the viewing congestion). On their day, they play lovely flowing rugby with fabulous running play and the most physical pack in Australia.
Now they just need Jacques Potgieter to keep the homophobic slurs down to a minimum.
BONUS POINT: Good thing we have attritional Super Rugby to keep us grounded from all that 6 Nations basketball.
Who needs all those free flowing try-fests going on up north in perfect weather for running rugby anyway? All those ‘rugby’ players prancing around clicking up the scoreboards and cheapening the value of a try are just a slap in the face to the rugby traditionalists, really.
Bring on the good old attritional grind of Super Rugby instead. Nothing speaks to the rugby purists better than some wet weather and a bunch of reset scrums.
When it comes to South Africa's World Cup quarter-final against Sri Lanka, it's hard to find a pre-match concern that the Proteas didn't make a complete mockery of.
When it comes to South Africa’s World Cup quarter-final against Sri Lanka, it’s hard to find a pre-match concern that the Proteas didn’t make a complete mockery of.
There was all that concern about what would happen if the Proteas didn’t bat first. Well, all that fuss came to nothing.
The toss looked massive and the choice for either captain looked obvious. Angelo Mathews won the toss for Sri Lanka, chose to bat and all early-rising South Africans groaned before their kettles had boiled.
Dale Steyn went to the top of his mark. The scoreboard showed the two teams corny countdown mash-up and the umpire shouted “Play!”
It was as if he actually shouted “On my signal, unleash hell.”
37.2 overs later and Sri Lanka were 133 all out in a blur of hostile bowling, dot ball pressure and regular wickets. You know the bowlers have done an amazing job when the guy that’s taken a hat-trick isn’t the man of the match.
Speaking of hat-tricks, that brings us to another pre-match concern that was mocked with righteous indignation: the make-up of the fifth bowler overs. More reliance on JP Duminy was supposed to provide an obvious target to a batting line-up that grew up on spin. Instead, Duminy’s contribution provided the middle over home nirvana of wicket-taking as well as containment.
His 9 overs yielded figures of 3/29. The decision to give him extra bowling responsibility would’ve been justified if he had conceded twice that amount of runs and taken half that amount of wickets (is it possible to take 1 and a half wickets? A Duckworth Lewis equation can probably find a way).
Another issue that went out the window when the Sri Lankan ended after 37.2 overs was that of slow over rates. The Proteas even got a bit of their own innings in before the dinner break, even with a quick Sydney shower’s cute homage to the 1992 semi-final.
Worries about a possible future ban for AB de Villiers for over rate infractions can wait. In fact, if the Proteas reach the final with their captain unscathed, it might be worth considering taking as long as he feels is required in the field to try and win the World Cup with punishment only possible after the tournament is over.
Is that cynical and against the spirit of cricket? Of course it is. But hey, would you rather be labelled an unsporting World Cup winner or a sporting choker?
Anyway, back to the quarter-final. At the game’s halfway mark, all concerns about how the Proteas go about run chases had a huge load taken off when a target of 134 was on offer. Let’s leave the worries for how they go about chasing higher totals if it gets to that. Besides, now with only two games left before the champions are crowned, that ‘if’ just got a fair bit bigger.
What that target did provide was a clear opportunity to settle the issue of one of the more publicised pre-match concerns: Quinton de Kock’s form.
Not only did he score runs without getting dismissed, he scored them quickly and gracefully. This wasn’t an innings of outside edges and mistimed scratches. The ball raced off the bat more often than not, at times with an almost insouciant lack of effort. Rock out with de Kock not out.
His final drive for the winning runs brought an end to the biggest and longest standing pre-match concern of them all: the Proteas World Cup knockout game hoodoo. It ended up being the biggest knockout match win in terms of balls to spare in the history of the World Cup.
So not only did the Proteas end their uncomfortable 23-year wait for a maiden World Cup knockout win, they did it with more comfort than any team has ever done so before.
One knockout game down, maybe two to go.