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  • Things We Learned: England vs the Springboks

    1) The record run against England just keeps growing. 2) Halfback depth has definitely grown. 3) The Springboks keep allowing their opponents to get back in the game after a yellow card. 4) England better focus on shortcomings in their own game rather than the points margin. 5) England's contractual obligation to mention their inexperience is getting tiring.


    1. The record run against England just keeps growing.

    12 games unbeaten over a period of 8 years and 5 wins in a row at Twickenham. These days, every time these teams play, the unprecedented Springbok run against England just gets more unprecedented.

    While there was a sense that the Springboks naturally upped their commitment for this test after their humbling loss to Ireland, they certainly didn’t seem to carry any insecurity baggage from last week with them. They played the whole game against England looking confident that they knew exactly how to control a game against them, and control it they did.

    The Springbok defensive structure was solid and set the tone for a steady platform to build on. Just to add to their confidence when it came to play without the ball, they were also far superior at the ruck time when it came to effecting turnovers.

    The improvement in the fetching area in the last 2 years really can’t be stressed enough. Think back to Heyneke Meyer’s first squad against England in 2012 and how the whole country gawped at the exclusion of specialist fetcher Heinrich Brussow and how the squad relied almost solely on the ground prowess of Bismarck du Plessis. Fast forward to this test, and South Africa are completely controlling the game without the injured Francois Louw with turnovers coming not just from the loose forwards, but from the whole pack and even some backs.

    With the ball, the Springboks got enough points on the board just by taking a few of their chances well. The gifted intercept try for Jan Serfontein gave them the luxury of putting England in the ‘catch up rugby’ position early without even needing to create much. It meant that the Springboks could relax a whole lot more as opposed to the week before, and the confident try at the start of the second half from a chip into space was indicative of that.

    England offered more resistance at the setpiece than what Ireland offered, but it was far from defining the game. There were very few scrums and the Springboks were always fine on their put-in. The Springboks didn’t lose any of their own line-out ball and while they only stole one, it was key as it was right at the end in their own 22, putting a serious dent into England comeback hopes.

    It wasn’t perfect from the Springboks and they certainly gave England sniffs of hope, but the flow of the game was certainly indicative of the confidence that has grown from success against England for years.

    2. Halfback depth has definitely grown.

    South African personnel at scrumhalf and flyhalf has provided much fuel for scrutiny in recent times, and this test did a lot to alleviate some scrutiny.

    It was an area thrust into focus for this test way before kick-off. While there will be much musing as to whether Heyneke Meyer changed both halfbacks from the Ireland test out of reaction to the defeat or if it was predetermined tour planning, either way, the coach used a big test match to start two players that were in the habit of Springbok bench warming and ended up getting a lot more out of it than if he had started them for, let’s say, only the Italy game.

    Cobus Reinach had a fantastic game for his first start and looked completely undaunted by the occasion, even with the Springboks going into the test match under pressure. He kicked far better than most critics expected, he showed great cover tackling, his breaks kept the fringe defence honest and he was rewarded with the try. While it’s early days in his international career and he’ll have other games where his game will be more tested, him passing this test in northern conditions definitely provides far less over-reliance on Fourie du Preez.

    While Patrick Lambie at flyhalf went into the game with less question marks than his halfback partner, he still needed to take advantage of an extremely rare starting spot. His management of the game was more than enough to meet up to the challenge and he offered more than enough to compensate for any kicking inaccuracy that sometimes came up.

    Importantly, the pair provided a game that showed control in wet conditions, (an area where the Springboks have put themselves under pressure this year).

    Other players put in top performances in other areas against England, but in terms of what the Springboks can learn about themselves on this end of year tour in a World Cup context, the performance of this halfback combination is the highlight of the tour so far.

    3. The Springboks keep allowing their opponents to get back into the game whenever they get a yellow card.

    It’s been a theme of this tour so far as well as a theme of the year. It’s hard to go a man down in a test match, but the Springboks have not been meeting the challenge in those 10-minute sin bin periods.

    On Saturday, the only way that England got a sniff of a result came from how quickly and dramatically the Springboks started back-pedalling when Victor Matfield was shown a yellow card. It started by England flooding players to a rolling maul for their first try and before you knew it, a 14-point lead had been wiped out before any fan could swear at Steve Walsh.

    As for the second try, everyone’s concerning themselves with the touch judge mistake that incorrectly gave England a line-out. Instead of focusing on the decision, ask yourself this: did the Springboks meet the challenge of being a man down in a rolling maul and do well in terms of getting behind it?

    The answer is no, and it’s an emphatic one.

    The Springboks did score a try while Matfield was off, but essentially they lost that 10-minute period 14-5 on the scoreboard. When they got a yellow card against Ireland, they lost that 10-minute period 10-0 and it ended up being the period where Ireland secured their win.

    The trend goes back further. The previous yellow card the Springboks received was Bryan Habana’s against Australia in Perth. They lost that period 10-0 (including that missed touch kick) and it was the period where they lost the game.

    In contrast, New Zealand have been meeting their challenges of going a man down far better. Their last 3 yellow cards in tests have produced 10-minute mini-battles of a 3-0 win against England at Twickenham, a 7-3 win against Australia in Brisbane and a 7-0 win against Australia in Auckland.

    It’s a pattern that goes back further for New Zealand. Think back to their 2013 win at Ellis Park and how they suffered 2 yellow cards and still didn’t relinquish the game (they lost the first mini-battle 3-7, but won the second one 7-0).

    Refereeing injustice or not, this is an area where the All Blacks are doing better than the Springboks.

    4. England better focus on the shortcomings in their own game rather than the points margin.

    While clearly disappointed, Stuart Lancaster gives an impression that he thinks his young team are on the right track because they ‘only’ lost by 3 points to the top 2 sides in the world. Instead, he should rather ask himself questions on how he’s failed to narrow the gulf in class between the two sides in the last 2 years.

    In 2012, his team gob-smacked the world with a thrilling 38-21 win over the All Blacks. Fast forward 2 years, and that result just looks more and more like a once-off instead of proof that Lancaster’s England are on the road to the top of the world.

    No player signifies the contrast between then and now more than Owen Farrell. Against New Zealand in 2012, he looked on a dead set path to prove himself in response to a (ridiculously undeserved) nomination for IRB player of the year. Now, he’s regressed to the point that his place in the team looks to be an unequivocal selection error.

    Shortcomings don’t end with him though. Looking at this test against the Springboks, apart from how Mike Brown fared up against Willie le Roux, all other 14 England players came off second best when rated against their opposite numbers. They were predictable, largely unpenetrative and, quite frankly, often looked confused.

    The post game synopsis is similar when you look at their game the week before against the All Blacks. Apart from Jonny May’s magnificent running try against the All Blacks (which can only really be credited to May’s raw ability rather than coaching nous), Lancaster’s team didn’t provide much threat, despite home advantage.

    One thing England are specialists at in these big tests are consolation tries. It’s a quality they’ve shown in the last 2 games as well as their tests in New Zealand. When the game’s already won by the opposition, they do often score to keep the scoreboard looking more respectable. It’s a good sign for commitment and passion, but if we are dealing with a proud rugby nation, surely those two qualities must be taken as a given.

    Yes, 3-point losses suggest that you’re close, but in home conditions, the last 2 tests both looked like done deals as a contest with 10 minutes to spare.

    Lancaster will no doubt point to how they came close in New Zealand in June. If you look at their 3-0 series loss game by game, you’ll see that the 1st test was still ‘alive’ on the hooter (when he had players unavailable and couldn’t pick the team he wanted), the 2nd test was over as a contest at around about the 60 minute mark and the 3rd test was over as a contest before half-time. That doesn’t suggest a team getting closer. It suggests a team moving further away.

    Lancaster has recently signed a 6-year contract with the RFU. England are going to need more than long winless streaks against the Springboks and a win against the All Blacks every 10 years to justify that.

    5. England’s contractual obligation to mention their inexperience is getting tiring.

    Never, ever put “Every time someone mentions how young/inexperienced the England players are” as a test match drinking game rule. If you do, you will die.

    It’s a strange phenomenon. It seems that according to England, the more they play, the less experience they seem to have.

    It’s been like this ever since Martin Johnson left the coaching post after a torrid 2011 World Cup with an ageing team. Since then, you can’t go 10 seconds in a pre-match Sky Sports broadcast without Stuart Barnes rattling on about how young the England players are with supporting graphics comparing the test cap count with the opposition.

    While the team might be more inexperienced than the All Blacks and the Springboks, it’s a team that Lancaster has had 3 seasons to mould and grow. How many seasons does he think he needs? Clearly the RFU think the answer is 6 more.

    Lancaster couldn’t wait to strut out the inexperienced line in the post-match interview either, naming it as the reason for his team giving points away. This is when it really gets laughable. The intercept pass for Jan Serfontein’s try was thrown by Danny Care, a 50-cap scrumhalf with experience dwarfing that of his opposite number. Dylan Hartley spent the occasion of his 59th test cap costing his team by getting yellow carded for stamping. I guess Lancaster thinks he'll learn his lesson when he reaches 100 caps.

    Don’t get sucked into English rugby post-match cliché. Stick to tried and tested test match drinking game rules like the solid captain’s quote of “110 percent”, the Arnold Geerdts rule of describing it as a “game of two halves” and whenever Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse have a fight. 


  • Things We Learned: Ireland vs the Springboks

    1) Dominating the setpiece isn't enough for the Springboks to win. 2) Long term benefits of mid-season rest bring out short term hurdles of rust, especially with inexperienced combinations. 3) The Springboks must rise to the challenge of a yellow card better. 4) Irish smarts are as hard to deal with as their courage. 5) Nick Mallett vs Ashwin Willemse is getting heated.


    1. Dominating the setpiece isn’t enough for the Springboks to win.

    There’s a reason why “It all starts up front” is a cliché. There’s also a reason why “It all ends up front” isn’t a cliché.

    There have been 3 Springbok losses in 2014 (many people will be praying that the number ends there) and 2 of those losses have been a special kind of excruciating, namely the loss to Australia in Perth and this latest whoopsie in Dublin.

    The reasons for the losses differed in both games, but where the two games are similar is that the Springboks controlled the setpiece in both.

    In Dublin, the Springboks needed two scrums for the pack to get its control and then it dominated the scrums throughout (underlined by gaining a scrum penalty in the first half and a tighthead in the second). Line-outs operated at a 100 percent win rate and they managed to steal twice from Ireland.

    Yet, as in Perth, the Springboks lost despite having such a platform, which just ups the swearing, pillow-punching and fist-chewing.

    In Perth, the Springboks went in with a far more basic Morne Steyn led up-and-under approach with a littering of box kicks thrown in. It probably wasn’t the right approach and, to make matters worse, it was executed poorly.

    In Dublin, there was hardly a Springbok up-and-under in sight. There were certainly some box kicks, but at least the kick-chase execution didn’t make them wasteful. The Springbok pain really set in with all the errors that came from ball in hand in the Irish half, and when it came those situations, they committed just about every error imaginable.

    Throw in the Irish hardly giving an inch in defence and some seriously astute kicks from Jonny Sexton and others, and you have a recipe for Springbok served up with its tail neatly placed between its legs.

    2. Long term benefits of mid-season rest bring out short term hurdles of rust, especially with inexperienced combinations.

    Everyone in South Africa should appreciate the importance of pulling the contracted Springboks out of the latter stages of the Currie Cup. It should also be appreciated that the players spent that month ‘off’ focusing on conditioning.

    However, if this is going to be the permanent procedure that’s applied yearly (and we should all hope that it is), then they need to find a way to keep rustiness when it comes to match-playing circumstances down to a minumim, especially when the opening game of the end of year tour is up against the Six Nations champions.

    Conditioning wise, the Springboks looked in fine shape. Strength in the contact looked high and so was the tackle percentage. Things went wrong in just about all areas that involved handling and running with a rugby ball. In that area, especially in the first half, just about every imaginable error was committed.

    From Francois Hougaard knocking it on from taking his eye off the ball (more than once) to Jan Serfontein running an ill-advised switch line (more than once) to Willie le Roux not running straight when he joined the line (far more than once)...it doesn't end with those perpetrators and the list is as damning as it is long.

    Also, while the backs have shown moments of promise in the season together, these are not settled seasoned combinations that can fall back on common understanding when things are getting messy. That certainly didn't help either.

    One area that can often be used as a Springbok fallback when it’s going pear-shaped out wide is the rolling maul. Unfortunately, that was one area where the Springboks didn’t have it all their own way. Ireland were smart and technically spot on in combating it. In fairness, the Springboks did later score a try from a rolling maul, so you could argue that the forwards eventually did meet the challenge. Then again, they also conceded a try from not defending the rolling maul well enough.

    The Irish also won the tactical kicking game. Sure, they had to kick more because they were behind when it came to territory as well as possession, but if Handre Pollard wanted a top introduction in his first test in Europe on how to really control things when it comes to kicking, Sexton certainly gave him one.

    Hopefully, all match play executing and decision-making just needed 80 minutes to buff out all the rust and a winning pattern will follow. Hopefully, future months ‘off’ between the Rugby Championship and November can combat it.

    3. The Springboks must rise to the challenge of a yellow card better.

    Let’s not even bother questiong the merits of Romain Poite’s latest high profile carding of a Springbok hooker. Let’s rather ask this question: How well did the Springboks rise to the challenge of being a man down in a key moment of the game?

    The answer is they didn’t do that well.

    Let’s also ask a question that Springbok fans love to ask: What would the All Blacks do? They gave us a fine example in their test match against England with their hooker also getting a second half yellow card. The 14 men remaining were able to up their game for that key period and controlled it totally, giving England nothing.

    In contrast, the Springboks were 16-10 down when Adriaan Strauss left the field. He returned with his side 26-10 down. The opposition ended up controlling the play in that key period. That’s not what’s happening to the best side in the world.

    The Springboks are going to get yellow cards every now and then. Some will be just and some won’t be. If they don’t rise to the challenge when it happens, they won’t be the best.

    4. Irish smarts are as hard to deal with as their courage.

    Ireland showed wonderful passion and commitment on the weekend. That was predictable. They also backed it up with smart counters for the Springbok game.

    Not forming a defensive maul at the line-out is a trend that crops around the world these days. Usually it serves as a mechanism to milk a truck and trailer infringement from the opposition. Ireland took it a step further and sent out loosehead prop Jack McGrath to come in from ‘the wrong side’ once it was clear that the ‘maul’ hadn’t formed. Really smart.

    When they did choose to form the maul, the threat was quelled more often than not. Their awareness of how to work together and where to be in that close situation is second to none.

    Their tactical kicking game was pretty much on point too. Jonny Sexton will take many plaudits, but in this area, he was supported by many as well. Connor Murray’s kick to set up Tommy Bowe for a fabulous try is a case in point.

    This team has shown off their smarts before in different ways. They’ve come desperately close to beating New Zealand recently, and they did so with a masterclass in how to wrap the man up in the tackle to negate their offload game.

    Against the Springboks, their defence was on point too. They had to make twice as many tackles as the Springboks did yet they kept a high percentage up. They retreated into their positions well in moments when they were on the back foot and didn’t give an inch.

    It’s a group of players that stand shoulder to shoulder with many tricks up their sleeves. That will always make them dangerous. If the Springboks are a bit off their game against them, they will lose. If they are off their game by a lot, they will lose comfortably.

    5. Nick Mallett vs Ashwin Willemse is getting heated.

    It’s been brewing for a while since Ashwin started taking up a post-match chair next to Nick after he’s completed the touch screen shift. The former Springbok wing has made it clear that he’s not just going to smile, nod and turn the post-match analysis into a half an hour episode of What Nick Said.

    At times in the Rugby Championship, it’s been compelling to view the passionate viewpoints fly and we soak it all up in the spirit of Springbok passion.

    This test, the animosity just took a step up. In the past, watching post-match Ashwin vs Nick has been a fine time to bring out the popcorn. After this test, watching it was a bit like being stuck at a dinner party while two guests are awkwardly arguing politics.

    It had all the ingredients for serious social awkwardness. Bickering back and forth, interrupting, Nick having to repeatedly say ‘Let me finish” as well as Ashwin trying to use that ever irritating dinner table adage “We’re not fighting. We’re having a conversation”.

    If Multichoice are looking for off-season ideas for how to use their studio rugby panel, they could do worse than group Ashwin, Nick, Naas Botha and Xola Ntshinga together in an episode of Come Dine With Me.


  • Things We Learned: Currie Cup Final

    1) Western Province can win the Currie Cup when they are expected to do so. 2) The BMT of Demetri Catrakilis cannot be underestimated. 3) The Gert Smal revolution is effective as well as attractive. 4) The Lions will come back stronger. 5) Allister Coetzee and Juan de Jongh really really like each other.


    1. Western Province can win the Currie Cup when they are expected to do so.

    In 2012, they won the Currie Cup final in Durban when no-one gave them a chance. In 2013, they lost the Currie Cup final at Newlands when they had all the expectation that comes with a home final. In 2014, Western Province won the Currie Cup at home for the first time in 13 years and put to bed some demons.

    When it comes to viewing Western Province and the Stormers collectively, the last 15 years has been littered with so many big game disappointments at Newlands. The 1999 Super 12 semi-final against the Highlanders after all those player strike murmurings, back to back Currie Cup home semi-final losses to the Cheetahs in 2004 and 2005, Sireli Naqelevuki’s high tackle against the Bulls in 2009, the loss to the Crusaders in 2011, losses to the Sharks in the 2012 Super Rugby semi-final and the 2013 Currie Cup final...the list is damning.

    Now, after years of waiting, the players have overcome the hurdle of home ground expectation.

    While Western Province enjoyed home advantage, there was a fair amount of public doubt in picking a winner before the 2014 final kicked off. The Lions had played great rugby for the whole campaign, and certainly looked the more dangerous of the two teams when one compared their respective semi-finals.

    As is so often the case, the margin between success and failure was minute. Western Province will be glad to get over the line at home. They’ve stopped a habit. They’ll hope that they’ve started a new one.

    2. The BMT of Demetri Catrakilis cannot be underestimated.

    If you want someone to deliver with the ball in a pressure moment in a big match, get it to the Greek.

    The big match temperament of Demetri Catrakilis was on show throughout. Apart from a fine performance in controlling the game from the pivot position (including his slick hands that led to his team’s only try), his placekicking was just perfect. He slotted 5 out of 5, and that takes his Currie Cup final kicking record to 13 to 13 (which excludes his winning drop kicks in 2012, of course).

    One can’t help but compare the contributions of both flyhalves in the match and how the contrast can be viewed as the difference between winning and losing. In contrast to Catrakilis, Marnitz Boshoff created some nightmares for himself.

    For someone who has launched himself in 2014 as a golden boy when it comes to kicking flyhalves, Boshoff only delivered a 3 out of 7 return from the tee (with his final attempt being particularly haunting). In general play, he seemed to force the issue with some options that were costly (possibly overcompensating for his poor goalkicking?).

    Marnitz Boshoff is a fine rugby player who will hopefully bounce back from this to become an even better one. If he paid attention to the temperament of his opposite number, he would have seen what he needs to do so.

    3. The Gert Smal revolution is effective as well as attractive.

    Pre-April, there were some mind-numbingly dull Super Rugby defeats coming out of Cape Town. 6 months later, the union lights up the stage with an attractive Super Rugby u-turn as well as a Currie Cup win. Boy, life has changed since Gert Smal became the director of rugby.

    Allister Coetzee and his assistants were getting it from all sides for the brand of rugby they were producing, even when they were winning games more often than not. Now, with some more help from upstairs, the team has flourished with the same coaching staff.

    New young stars have been backed and they have produced. Along with magic moments from newly appointed captain Juan de Jongh, there were many others from the likes of Nizaam Carr. Cheslin Kolbe moved to fullback and just seems to keep growing as a player. Shoot, just watching Seabelo Senatla run at full speed either with the ball or chasing it is worth any entrance fee alone.

    Western Province’s play in 2014 will be defined by its exciting players as well as the trophy it brought. There can’t be any better compliment to the Smal/Coetzee team than that.

    4. The Lions will come back stronger.

    It ended sadly, but it was a great Lions season that’s marked an incredible turnaround since the player exodus that came with their Super Rugby hiatus in 2013. One really can’t compliment coach Johan Ackermann enough.

    As for other areas of leadership, one can hardly fine a better embodiment of a Captain Fantastic than Warren Whitely. His influence and class has been obvious throughout. His grace in defeat was yet another fine example that he’s set, but you can tell that it’s not something that he wants to show often.

    Their disappointment on the day was palpable, but their post-match demeanour in how they must use the experience to bounce back was almost as clear.

    It’s a scrum that scares all that come near it and it’s a playing style that’s doing good work in refilling Ellis Park. Some players that have been unearthed are banging seriously hard on the Springbok door. In short, currently, the union is just a treat to South African rugby.

    There’s disappointment, but they’ll bounce back from that. They’ve certainly bounced back from worse.

    5. Allister Coetzee and Juan de Jongh really really like each other.

    Has there ever been a winning captain and coach combination that has jumped around in a more boyish embrace than the post-match meeting of Juan de Jongh and Allister Coetzee?

    Before you answer that question, here's a hint. The answer is no.

    No doubt some of Coetzee’s joy was that he was able to hug someone outside of the coaching box. Watching all the coaching staff bundle up together at the final whistle looked like either a vertical game of twister or an ill-conceived “most people in a small area” world record attempt.

    While we all respect that Newlands is an old building, do the coaches really have to be stuck in the most claustrophobic space in world rugby? Seriously, that narrow room looks like it’s roughly 50% table, roughly 10% chairs and roughly 35% Matthew Proudfoot.

    Thankfully, Coetzee escaped that death trap unscathed and enjoyed the sweet release of hugging his captain in the open air. He went on to continue the goodwill with others in the squad, which just embodied the whole Newlands atmosphere.

    Yes, the Springboks don’t take part in it anymore and mass exodus of South African rugby players in general has changed the tournament a lot, but not only is the Currie Cup alive and well, it doesn’t need all these overprotective types constantly reminding us that it's alive and well.


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