'Thinking' Boks can beat the All Blacks
sport365 columnist Robbie Fleck was at Newlands on Saturday to witness the Springboks' 22-19 win over the Wallabies. Like any South African, he liked what he saw, but the Boks do need to make a few improvements ahead of Saturday's clash against the All Blacks.
I thought the Wallabies were very, very good on Saturday; it was an outstanding effort from Stirling Mortlock's team, based mainly on a strong defensive showing - probably the best performance from Australia since 'Knuckles' Connolly and Michael Foley (my old Bath coaches) took over.
What impressed me the most about the Boks was their ability to think on their feet in those last 10 minutes, despite being a few points down. There were no willy-nilly passes or silly mistake, they took the game to the Wallabies and made sure of the win. Jake White would have been very happy with that, whilst the Wallabies will know they gave it their best, but yet, still lost...
Nathan Sharpe, Dan Vickerman, George Smith and Wycliff Palu put their bodies on the line up front and Matt Giteau and Mortlock tackled bravely out wide. They did their homework well in the build-up to this match and they prepared for it as you would for a massive one-off game The Wallabies knew we would attack them around the fringes and use one-off runners and they were waiting for us. One area they neglected, however, was their midfield defence, which is why Jean found one or two holes. Unfortunately he could not finish off his two fantastic breaks.
The Springboks started the match exceptionally well, it was probably the best performance from Jake White's team since he took over in 2004. They dominated physically and tactically they were looking sharp - that is until John Smit limped off with his hamstring injury.
John has his critics, but I think his absence proved each and every one of his detractors wrong - his loss was massive.
The Boks missed his leadership. Victor Matfield is the best lock in the world and probably the best player in this Bok team, but he should be left to being John's second-in-charge and running the line-outs, that is what he does best. I think the senior players should have stood up better on Saturday; guys like Victor, Bakkies, Percy, and to a lesser degree Schalk and Jean, needed to take responsibility, from a leadership point of view, in John's absence. The obvious lack of leadership is a worry, but, for me, it proves that you need to have players like Bob Skinstad and AJ Venter in your matchday 22 no matter what. What would they have done on Saturday had Victor also been injured?
Gary Botha, John's replacement, was average on Saturday. John is without doubt the best scrummaging hooker in the world and his line-out throwing, especially to the back, has been faultless of late. When Botha came on he missed his jumpers first up - guys he has played with for years now - and the Bok scrum did not operate as one would expect it to against the Wallabies. Also, John is a big guy and his bulk helps him over the advantage line every time he gets the ball; Gary battled to do that and often found himself going backwards against a very committed defensive unit.
As John's understudy, Botha deserves another shot this weekend, after all, he has never started a Test match, but the bigger worry is who will take over the captaincy against the All Blacks.
I think Bob Skinstad should lead the team, provided he has recovered from his shoulder injury (I haven't spoken to him this week, so I'm not sure about his fitness), but it would a bit harsh on Pierre Spies, who I thought was phenomenal on the weekend. Juan Smith, however, is battling with a knee injury, so Bob could always slot in at No.7 - in my opinion his best position, as blindside would free him up a lot more to spend some time in the backline, with Schalk and Spies doing the hard grunt up front. (Having Bob in the team would also provide Gary Botha with the best back-of-the-line-out option available to him.)
If Bob is not fit, the Boks will in all probability go with Matfield as their new captain. I don't think Victor is a bad captain - after all he captained the Bulls to the Super 14 title against John Smit's Sharks - but he is a novice in terms of captaincy at the highest level. I actually think some of the criticism levelled at him after the weekend is a bit unfair, especially his decision to go for the corner with 10 minutes left on the clock. At that stage we were 16-19 down, points were at a premium and he was spot-on to go for the try and play to the team's strengths - the maul. The Wallabies were simply too clever and adept at spoiling South Africa's line-out drives (legally or not), something they would have worked hard on during the week.
The All Blacks would have noted plenty from last weekend, most notably the Boks' over-use of one-off runners. The All Blacks will simply hit them back in the tackle should they employ the same tactics this Saturday - it would be cannon-fodder to the likes of Jerry Collins and Richie McCaw. Burger and Spies created a lot of our momentum against the Aussies, but they are both prone to running very upright, you won't get any go-forward like that against the All Blacks. We need some finesse on attack and, once again, Bob Skinstad shapes up as the man to do just that. We saw how well Bob combined with Pierre Spies against England - can you imagine the damage he could cause running the right lines off Bob's clever off-loads and one-handed passes against the All Blacks?
Aside from the momentum created by Burger and Spies, the rest of the Boks, and their backs in particular, struggled. At fly-half Butch could do only so much without the neccessary momentum, which is why he had to try a few chip kicks and grubbers to get behind the Wallaby defence, whilst the rest of the backline spent most of the afternoon having to clean out. Also, there were not enough guys chasing Butch's dabs ahead and the Boks certainly missed the express pace of Bryan Habana in this regard. Having said that, I think Ashwin Willemse's work-rate was superb and his pace will come back the more rugby he plays and the more confidence he gets.
Ashwin and JP Pietersen can brace themselves for a busy afternoon in Durban. There is no doubt in my mind that the All Blacks will do a lot of kicking on the Springbok back three, with their wingers chasing hard. They will look to run Monty ragged and make him tired - he is the key man in the back three, who orchestrates the last line of defence, and if they get that right, the Bok wingers will be under exceptional pressure from Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko, two chaps who can really eat up the metres! Fly-half Dan Carter and second five-eighth Aaron Mauger provide the All Blacks with a high-class left-and-right-footed kicking duo and they will test out the back three as they try to avoid the Boks' rush defence, which has worked very well for South Africa - especially at home to the All Blacks - in recent years.
The All Blacks know that the Springboks can - and will - front up to them physically, so they will look to other ways; kicking cleverly is just one way to get at the Springboks, who are not renowned for having a good defensive kicking game. JP Pietersen and Willemse are not the best kicking wingers around, and Jean de Villiers's kicking must improve, putting extra pressure on Ruan Pienaar, Butch and Monty, all of whom have to execute a faultless defensive kicking display. Fourie du Preez's injury also robs South Africa of a well-educated boot, especially on defence, but his ability to read a game and drop back on defence is another crucial aspect of his play. As No.8s go, Pierre Spies is a very attacking player, but in Du Preez's absence, Schalk Burger filled that role against the Wallabies, which is another reason why he walked off with the Man of the Match Award.
Schalk was magnificent against the Wallabies, but in typical Schalk fashion - and despite a self-confessed "rugby hangover" on Monday - he is already looking forward to facing the All Blacks this weekend.
I played against the All Blacks on six occasions, twice as a replacement in the 1999 Tri-Nations, before starting my first Test against them at the World Cup later that year. It is a game that every single Springbok wants to play in and I can honestly say that it was, and is, my favourite Test match. Standing there, facing that Haka is something that I just cannot describe and I still make sure, to this day, that I do not miss it whenever we're playing against them.
There is a massive amount of tradition and mutual respect between the All Blacks and the Springboks and the build-ups are always massive - this week is no different. Fortunately, aside from the injuries to John, Gurthro Steenkamp and Juan Smith, it has been a relatively trouble-free week for Jake, allowing the squad to concentrate on the job at hand, which is beating the IRB's No.1 rated team in the world.
Can we beat the All Blacks?
Of course we can - in fact, I think the Springboks have a brilliant chance. The loss of Smit is worth about five to seven points, but if Bob is fit and the guys learn from last week, then yes, I think the Springboks can make it two from two in the Tri-Nations. Either way, and if last week is anything to go by, it should be an absorbing Test match.
Until next week,
* Fleckie's 'Last Word' will appear weekly on iafrica.com - and also on sport365.co.za and rugby365.com - so log on next week for some more opinions and in-depth analysis from the 31-times capped Springbok centre. Also, feel free to mail Fleckie at email@example.com with any comments or queries.