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  • Things We Learned: Wales vs the Springboks
    Rugby

    1) 2014 can't end soon enough for Heyneke Meyer. 2) All the "this team can keep their composure" sentiment from earlier in the year has been thrown out the window. 3) Rugby has to find some consistency concerning taking the man out in the air. 4) The Welsh mental block has been broken. 5) Calling all centres.

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    1. 2014 can’t end soon enough for Heyneke Meyer.

    4 losses in the year and more scraped wins than comfortable ones. To soften this latest blow against Wales, Heyneke Meyer will no doubt hold up his first win against the All Blacks as the most important part of his yearly report. He doesn’t have too much more that can be brightly highlighted.

    How the mood has changed in the two months since that day in Johannesburg. In October, the team looked like it had successfully turned a corner in form as well as ideology after a fine fortnight of positive play at home against Australia and New Zealand. Now, the team’s play has reduced itself to be littered with errors on what has to be one of the worst Springbok end of year tours in years and years.

    The game against Wales showcased all the Springbok low points of 2014 and more. In Cardiff, they had an extraordinary litany of unforced errors, a failure to really dominate in any area of the game, a horrific injury to captain Jean de Villiers and a score that shows the ever so frustrating truth: all it would’ve taken was one inspired breach of the Welsh defence to win that test and the Springboks couldn’t find one.

    Gone was the confident intent of a pack being precise at the breakdown, running play based around a flyhalf attacking flat and an eye to be more accommodating for those out wide. Instead, when faced with slippery conditions and a desire to just get the win over and done with to end the year, out came the queue of one-off runners as the Springboks worryingly reverted more to type.

    It’s a time to be seriously disappointed in how the year has ended, but not a time to panic. The team has plenty of good rugby players and a lot can be turned around before the World Cup. However, they mustn’t just come out and tell the public (as well as themselves) that they will learn from their mistakes for 2015. They must actually learn from them.

    While the win against the All Blacks was indeed a huge stepping stone for his team, just imagine how badly 2014 would have ranked if the SuperSport producer didn’t step in with all the replays of that Liam Messam tackle on the Ellis Park big screen.

    2. All the “this team can keep their composure” sentiment from earlier in the year has been thrown out the window.

    Remember those barely believable comebacks against Wales at the Mbombela Stadium and against Argentina in Salta? Remember all the control in the last 20 minutes against Australia at Newlands to blow the Wallabies away? These games were supposed to show the extra level of calmness that the Springboks can reach when faced with the pressure-filled final 20 minutes. In the game against Wales, nothing could be further from the truth.

    The last 25 minutes at the Millennium Stadium was pretty much just one disaster after another for the Springboks. It started with the tamest of knock-ons from Patrick Lambie. From the ensuing scrum, a Springbok pack that had done well to hold its own all day was wheelie binned backwards and conceded the last kickable penalty for Leigh Halfpenny. Then Jean de Villiers was screaming in pain.

    While the captain’s agony was the most gruelling moment, it certainly wasn’t the climax of this horror film.

    A controversial yellow card made its mandatory appearance. Then Francois Hougaard pulled off the most laughable double-whammy of not only wasting a quick tap penalty by kicking it, but by also landing said kick out on the full.

    If only erring on the side of kicking over the touchline had existed in Handre Pollard instead. His punt from a penalty ended up not finding touch at all (a disturbing homage to Morne Steyn in Perth).

    The Welsh replacement Scott Williams even gifted the Springboks a fumble from that kick over his own in-goal area and gave them a 5-metre scrum. They couldn’t take advantage and fumbled from the base. This just showed that after all the great escapes earlier in the year, this was a game where the Springboks were not getting out of jail even though Wales had opened the cell door for them.

    Willie le Roux seemed to spend the entire final quarter knocking the ball on softly except for when he ended the game with a forward pass.

    Calmness in comeback was a trait to rely on. In the last test of the year, it was gone. At the moment, it looks like a quality that can’t be brought to the World Cup without a massive over-reliance on Fourie du Preez.

    3. Rugby has to find some consistency concerning taking the man out in the air.

    So, are you allowed to contest the ball in the air or aren’t you? Currently, it seems that it’s allowed, but if the attacking player doesn’t quite get it right, he’s expected to contort himself miraculously mid-air in order to avoid any contact with the kick receiver.

    This issue has been riddled with controversial decisions throughout the year in both hemispheres. Sometimes, the attacking player has even been penalised after getting his hand to the ball.

    Yes, recklessness must be guarded against when dealing with players in the air. It’s an area where serious injuries can be incurred and it’s fair to punish negligence with regards to harming a player (not just intent to do so). However, a lot is being expected of the contesting player who doesn’t understand what’s expected.

    Cornal Hendricks will be very confused why his challenge for the ball got a yellow card while others were either punished less or left totally unpunished. He’s not alone.

    On that issue, with all this confusing clamping down of contesting the ball in the air, it should make the Springboks and other teams seriously question the merits of any high kick chase plays at all. What good is a box kick or an up and under without a good chase? And what good is a chase with an extremely fine margin of avoiding punishment?

    4. The Welsh mental block has been broken.

    Fair play, Wales. Deserved win. About bloody time.

    For the Welsh, the game should be viewed more importantly for the result rather than their play itself. They got over the line after years of trying against a SANZAR side, and that’s something that had festered many doubts for them as a side.

    Their game was built on their massive defence. They hardly missed tackles and committed quickly to closing down space (especially for Willie le Roux, their tormentor in chief earlier in the year). They seemed to react to the previous week’s chilling heartbreak against the All Blacks with a supremely committed response on defence. That was predictable, but no less admirable.

    Captain Sam Warburton was a nuisance throughout at the breakdown. Dan Biggar walked away with the man of the match award based pretty much solely on his defensive effort.

    In the cold light of an unemotional video session, they should still question their inability in attack. Scoring 12 points in total in a match where possession and territory were in the balance should be disappointing. After all, they probably had more try-scoring opportunities than the Springboks did and didn’t take any either.

    That overall performance will be enough to beat a bunch of Springboks seemingly in self-destruct mode. In reality, that kind of overall match contribution probably won’t be enough to win a World Cup quarter-final.

    It was a fabulous occasion for Wales and a huge relief for many. However, if they are going to match their showing in the 2011 World Cup next year (let alone better it), this game must be looked at as a starting block to such a showing and not proof of it.

    5. Calling all centres.

    Over 100 caps for Jean de Villiers and only 3 of them coming in World Cup games. We hold out hope that he’ll be available to put an end to his William Webb Ellis curse, but tragically, it looks like the Springboks are going to have change plans away from him for the fourth World Cup in a row.

    If the Springboks want some serious centre experience, they better start begging. As we speak, there could well be SARU officials frantically wording their Frans Steyn apology as well as figuring out just how much money it would take for Jaque Fourie to Matfield himself out of retirement.

    Otherwise, the inside centre responsibilities probably fall squarely on Jan Serfontein’s shoulders, who has of course spent half the season indulging in Heyneke Meyer’s favourite past time of turning non-outside centres into outside centres.

    Who could Meyer turn to outside him? His past selections don’t exactly make it clear. Damian de Allende? Looks like he lost a lot of Meyer faith at 13 after just two tests in the position. JJ Engelbrecht? Surely that’s a back from the dead story that's too absurd to be true. JP Pietersen? He probably spent this whole end of year tour showing that his experience could me more crucial on the wing. Jaco Taute (he played for the Springboks at 13 too, remember)? Shudder.

    It’s as if fate is trying as hard as possible to tell Meyer that Juan de Jongh is his man. Let’s see how many other cards the coach will play before he caves in and folds.

    2014 is over. Join us again next year for another season of Who Wants To Be Springbok Centre?

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  • Things We Learned: Italy vs the Springboks
    Rugby

    1) Another game in Italy, another forgettable win. 2) When it gets scrappy, there aren't enough Springbok players to neaten it up. 3) The Matfield/Etzebeth centre pairing is not what Bakkies would want. 4) It's questionable if Italy are actually developing at all. 5) Someone needs to give Italian rugby some cameras.

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    1. Another game in Italy, another forgettable win.

    You might remember that Nizaam Carr showed promise on debut and you might remember Willie le Roux combining nicely with Handre Pollard. In a couple of weeks, you won’t remember anything else.

    It was an incredibly forgettable match, just like every match that the Springboks have ever played and will ever play in Italy.

    Think back to the history of the Springboks in Italy. What can you remember from 2009 in Udine? You might, just might, remember it for Wynand Olivier’s only test try, purely because him scoring a test try stands out for being so remarkably absurd.

    Anything else from that game sticks out in your mind? Thought not.

    2001 in Genova? Nope. Nothing. Apparently a backline containing Louis Koen, Braam van Straaten and Trevor Halstead ran riot. Couldn’t have been too many dummy switches from that lot.

    1997 in Bologna? It was Nick Mallett’s first test as coach of the Springboks. Apart from giving an answer to an obscure pub quiz question, it gives nothing. 1995 in Rome? Sandwiched in between the most historic World Cup win ever and the first post-isolation Springbok win at Twickenham, that game was doomed from the start.

    In Italy, it’s always a scrappy affair. The Springboks never really get their momentum going. They never put in a performance that looks convincing, even if the performance was convincing.

    The Springboks are not alone. Most other rugby nations completely forget that they’ve played in Italy. Most Italian players probably forget that they themselves have played in Italy. Rumour has it that Sergio Parisse was shocked when he reached 100 tests because he could only recall playing in 25.

    2. When it gets scrappy, there aren’t enough Springbok players to neaten it up.

    The Springboks enjoyed the majority of the possession as well as the territory, they were more than in control in defence and could take care of themselves in most scrums. There were just precious few moments that neatened up all the moments that were scrappy.

    The Italians were resolute and passionate in defence while always trying to keep the game tight. That was to be expected. It always looked like a game where you still need to work to earn your right to go wide. It just never seemed to be earned neatly, and when it was, the Springboks were usually untidy when trying to cash in.

    Often in games like this, the Springbok line-out can still operate smoothly and help out as a base for attack. This wasn’t the case in this test. The Springboks lost 3 of their own line-out ball. That’s as much as they’ve lost in the previous 3 test matches combined.

    In other recent games, Duane Vermeulen has been providing so much turnover ball that the Springboks can either work with or it calms things down with a penalty for holding on. He couldn’t get any of that good work done in this test, either by not getting over the ball or the referee not enjoying it when he did.

    In the backs, Lambie often ran at the line flat, but it didn’t result in much thereafter. The centre combination of Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein still needs to work on how they can mix up attacking space as well as contact. Johan Goosen joined the line from fullback nicely, but seldom. It was hardly a fun day to be a wing.

    It needed some substitutes to take the Springbok game away from its bish-bash funk. For instance, Willie le Roux's impact could be seen immediately. Creative reliance on him is hardly a new concern for Heyneke Meyer and this game only accentuated that.

    Handre Pollard might have been able to run at some tiring Italian legs while Patrick Lambie didn’t, but he certainly cashed in more.

    In setting up Cobus Reinach's try, Nizaam Carr showed a flash of how see sees space to run into while backing it up with offloads. Hopefully it’s a sign of some more Springbok endeavours by him or others to come.

    3. The Matfield/Etzebeth centre pairing is not what Bakkies would want.

    Locks hanging around in the centre channel is hardly a new fad. It’s also got some merits in terms of setting up mismatches in running at backs. However, both locks constantly hanging around in the centre channel has got to be overkill.

    It was especially apparent in the second half of this game. Eben Etzebeth and Victor Matfield were constantly out wide trying to combine. It ended up looking like a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Or, to give the saying a more literal relevance, too many carriers and not enough cleaners.

    It could be a by-product of playing a team like Italy, when your overwhelming favourites tag lulls you into a sense of security. Tight forwards can start thinking that only a couple of cleaners are needed to get quick ruck ball and that they should start hanging out in the backline so that the team can have as many numbers as possible to get into the business of scoring tries.

    Throughout the game, the Springboks never truly got into a great cleaning rhythm against Italy. When they did have enough at the ruck, they often didn’t ruck hard and precisely over the ball. Cobus Reinach often had to dig for the ball rather than having it neatly presented to him.

    In games like this, the Springboks will be better off erring on the side of the tight forwards hitting too many rucks rather than too few.

    It might be naive to ask Matfield to get stuck in more. He’s an old dog set in his old tricks, playing the “I’m the number 5” lock card of being the more looser of the two. However, there’s surely still hope for Etzebeth not to get sucked into this behaviour too often.

    Rumour has it that the shock of the Springbok enforcer lock looking to carry the ball too much prompted Bakkies Botha's retirement.

    4. It’s questionable if Italy are actually developing at all.

    Sergio Parisse had some lovely touches linking the backs and the forwards, Martin Castrogiovanni was his usual nuisance self and Italy were committed in defence. Apart from those familiar highlights, Italy offered hardly anything else when it came to their play.

    When it came to off the ball stuff, they had plenty to offer. Shoving into the Springbok line-out before it’s been organised, blocking people chasing kicks, provocative slaps after scrum time...you name it, they brought it.

    A lot of that type of behavious is geared towards damage control. Recent examples of it that the Springboks have had to deal with include Scotland at the Mbombela Stadium last year and just about any match in Argentina. However, those sides could take a couple of try scoring chances when they came their way. Italy’s scoreboard was only good for a scrum penalty and a rolling maul one, otherwise they didn’t really threaten.

    So Italy have a couple of ageing stars and some physical presence (which seems to have always been there). Can they truly say that they’ve advanced? After 15 seasons in the 6 Nations, does their world ranking of 14th not show a downward trend instead of an upward one?

    Compare the state of Italian rugby today and how Argentina seem to be on the up after 3 seasons in the Rugby Championship. The latter is offering up much more hope than the former, and even pulled off beating the former away from home despite resting a bunch of players for what turned out to be a win in France.

    After years of being exposed to regular top rugby, Italy should question themselves if they are not seriously disappointed by being comfortably beaten at home by a team that by their own standards were far from convincing.

    5. Someone needs to give Italian rugby some cameras.

    This constant wide camera shot of the match from far too far away might do a job in football, but in rugby, it simply has to stop. Most Italians probably associate the game of rugby with headaches.

    It makes the game hard to scrutinise. For instance, whenever there’s a turnover, you have absolutely no idea who pulled it off. Don’t bother waiting for a replay to sort that out for you either. That’s just the sort of nuance that Italian producers have no time for.

    Thank heavens there wasn’t a tricky TMO decision in this test. With only two possible cameras able to offer a workable view (okay, 3 cameras at a push sometimes), TMO’s will definitely not be able to give any reasons not to award anything.

    What happens when Steve Walsh referees there without being able to see many angles of himself on the big screen? Does he start doubting his own existence?

    Okay, that might be worth seeing. Let’s wait until after that’s happened before TV companies have a camera whip-round for Italy.

    ________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Things We Learned: England vs the Springboks
    Rugby

    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.

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    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. 

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