Rugby fans had an emotional moment as they watched the Springboks play some ballet-beautiful rugby on Saturday. But while the players were certainly transformed, coach Heyneke Meyer has warned that it’s too early to celebrate, as there’s still work to be done. And KEN BORLAND agrees.
The Springboks were transformed at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, playing rugby of supermodel-level beauty as they overwhelmed Australia 31-8 to claim the first try-scoring bonus point in the Rugby Championship.
Of course, as is always the case with admiring supermodels on a Saturday night, there is a chance that beer goggles were involved in the form of a weak Australian team, further ravaged by injuries on the night, and we should all just calm down a bit and not start trumpeting the Springboks as the finished article just yet.
What is undeniable, however, is that they squeezed the Wallabies for 80 minutes with great success, winning over a Loftus Versfeld crowd of 44,463 fans that were strangely subdued and not their usual passionate, fiery selves at the start.
Perhaps the previous disappointments had made them wary and that seemed justified as Johan Goosen, the 20-year-old who was meant to be the Springboks’ saviour replacing Morne Steyn at flyhalf, missed two early penalties.
As coach Heyneke Meyer explained afterwards, Goosen had been dogged by a heel injury all week, “was not at 100% in the warm-up”, and then reported he was in pain again after 10 minutes. He felt he could soldier on, but would not be able to kick, so scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar took over the duties.
Pienaar also struggled though, missing four of his seven kicks at goal, so South Africa left another 16 points on the table – which could have made it a serious hiding for the Wallabies.
Goosen’s influence went way beyond mere goal-kicking, though. With the Free Stater standing flat and eager to engage the defences with ball in hand, the Springboks were now able to convert the pressure they created (through a pack that becomes more and more impressive with every outing) into space and try-scoring opportunities.
Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers were obviously delighted to score five tries, but were frustrated by suggestions from some media that the change of fortune had been due to a change in game plan.
“We haven’t changed one thing, that’s what people don’t understand. We’ve created those opportunities in previous weeks, but when we can execute and finish off those opportunities then it’s fantastic.
“We always say there’s space somewhere because, from a defensive point of view, you can’t cover everywhere. You need the ability to play into that space, if the space is at the back then you have to kick it there and contest to get it back. If they have guys back, then there’s the opportunity to run.
“We were really good at the breakdown. We put pressure on them there and territorially we were fantastic; we spent most of the time in their half. When that happens, then you can run the ball more. It all worked nicely for us today,” De Villiers exclaimed.
The predatory Bryan Habana was the chief beneficiary of all that space the Springboks found, scoring the second hat-trick of his 82-Test career and surpassing his former fellow wing, Breyton Paulse, as the leading try-scorer for South Africa against Australia with eight in 16 Tests.
Zane Kirchner also attacked well from fullback, scoring one try and being denied another by a mere centimetre as Adam Ashley-Cooper knocked himself out cold tackling him into touch. The rolling maul was used to good effect, too, with flank Francois Louw scoring from one in the second half. Taking that into account, this time South Africa’s kicking yips did not matter.
The Springboks certainly didn’t set out to be more flashy – that was just the by-product allowed by the hard grind of the men up front.
Thanks to a tremendous effort from the tight five, and an outstanding display from the loose trio of Duane Vermeulen, Louw and Willem Alberts, the Wallabies were knocked back on the gain line, putting the Springboks on the front foot and allowing them to impose their game plan on the visitors.
"South Africa played well tonight; they should be given credit. They were very good around the collisions and didn't allow us much front-foot ball. Their defence was very effective and we used up players trying to run at them or to stop their ball-carriers," Australia coach Robbie Deans admitted afterwards.
At almost every ruck, Vermuelen or Louw had their hands on the ball and the Springboks dominated the breakdown to an extent they have rarely enjoyed against the Wallabies.
Pienaar also enjoyed his best game of the year. Aware of the pressure on young Goosen, he took on most of the field-kicking duties and kept the Aussies back-pedalling and chasing the ball very well. His service was also slick and his decision-making good as he looked every part the general on the field.
Goosen was left to express himself with ball in hand and he showed his tremendous vision and deceptive pace on a number of occasions.
After the porous midfield defending in the second half of the Perth defeat, it was encouraging to see Jaco Taute make a fine debut at outside centre, tackling strongly and following the lead of skipper De Villiers inside him.
"You're only as good as your defence. That's how you put pressure on and then you score from turnovers. Our defence was awesome tonight. Australia wants a high-tempo game, but these players always put their bodies on the line,” Meyer said.
But, ever the perfectionist, he added: "I'm very proud of this young team tonight, but three tries were just a centimetre away and you have to convert those. So I'm not happy with that: if you create those opportunities, you must put them away." DM
Photo: South Africa's Jaco Taute (R) challenges Australia's Wallabies' Dominic Shipperley during their Rugby Championship test match in Pretoria,September 29 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko