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  • Things We Learned: New Zealand vs the Springboks
    Rugby

    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.

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    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
    Rugby

    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.

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    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.

    ______________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Window Dressing the Tackle Bags
    Rugby

    Right now, it must be hard for Oupa Mohoje to feel like anything but a window dressing squad selection.

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    Right now, it must be hard for Oupa Mohoje to feel like anything but a window dressing squad selection.

    Mohoje is an extremely promising blindside flanker who can also cover lock. It’s clear by Heyneke Meyer’s selections this year that Mohoje is not considered as even a third choice option in any of those positions. That might be okay for a training camp scenario, but what is he doing now in a Rugby Championship squad of thirty players?

    While just getting a taste of the Springbok environment can be good for the development of players, Mohoje must have got his taste by now and would be better served either by playing rugby somewhere else or getting a fair crack at a squad role that isn’t just holding tackle bags.

    With the Springbok lock playing duties being shared around by the four out-and-out locks selected in the squad (namely Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Bakkies Botha), there’s no surprise around Mohoje not being considered for a role in that position even if there is an injury. But what of his supposed squad role as a blindside flank option?

    He was named on the bench for the test against Argentina in Pretoria when Willem Alberts pulled out late (Marcell Coetzee stepped into the starting line-up), but in a close game, he wasn’t brought onto the field. Then he was hauled out of the matchday 23 for the next test against the Pumas in Salta to accommodate Juan Smith’s inclusion in the team.

    What is that other than confirmation that he’s not considered by Meyer as one of his top three options in the blindside flank position?

    With both Alberts and Smith unavailable for the match against Australia in Perth, instead of repeating the selection of Coetzee starting with Mohoje on the bench that was made for the match in Pretoria, Mohoje has again been left out of the matchday 23 with late squad replacement Warren Whitely being named on the bench instead.

    Now, even if it’s accepted that the team needs more 8th man cover on the bench that Whitely provides, one still has to ask what is this selection other than confirmation that Mohoje’s place in the squad would’ve always been better filled by Whitely in the first place?

    Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable to infer that Mohoje’s constant squad inclusion this year could well be related to his race. Let’s ignore the merits of window dressing selection policies for a moment and focus on the treatment of the player itself. If a player is selected in a squad (for whatever reason), you owe it to him to give him a fair crack at his role in the squad.

    Mohoje is clearly surplus to Meyer’s requirements on a playing level, so why wasn’t his place in the squad filled by someone else? For instance, are the Springboks really sufficiently covered in both centre positions by 3 players (Jean de Villiers, Jan Serfontein and Damian de Allende) that are all predominantly inside centres? Even if Meyer has decided that he’s not a Juan de Jongh or a JJ Engelbrecht man, there’s still S’bura Sithole to try and test.

    In another area, could a sixth prop in the squad not be a more useful slot to fill than Mohoje’s current place in the squad? With a full front row being mandatory on test match benches these days, a sixth prop could ensure that the Springboks would be fully covered for injury in the loosehead and tighthead stakes, thereby not relying on anybody to cover both roles and run the risk of Coenie Oosthuizening themselves (a situation that the Springboks are possibly risking now with Trevor Nyakane).  

    If Mohoje’s role is to hold tackle bags, that can’t be beneficial to the player if he then gets subjected to falling down the pecking order to replacements that enter the squad after him. Besides, why window dress the tackle bags role anyway? If you are going to use window dressing selections in a squad to appease the public and/or politicians, they only get angrier at you when they find out those selections were used for tackle bag holding duty.

    While people will look at the Mohoje situation and cite popular, recent examples of black players being underutilised in Springbok squads (such as Chiliboy Ralepelle and Hanyani Shimange), there are also too many tragic examples of black players being treated similarly and falling out of not just Springbok contention, but the rugby playing radar altogether. Kaya Malotana, Owen Nkumane, Thando Manana...and we all know the list doesn't end there.

    Mohoje is a very promising player who, once selected, deserves a fair crack at a squad role. If you wish to view his rugby playing in a transformation context, it would be better for the player’s development as well as the development of transformation if he could be selected in the Currie Cup ahead of a white player on merit instead of holding a tackle bag in the Springbok squad on window dressing terms.


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