South Africa's record 38-12 victory over the Wallabies in Brisbane at the weekend left the Australian press raging at their team - and there might finally be the inkling of a realisation that Heyneke Meyer's game plan is the one that brings more consistent success at Test level than romantic visions of hanging on to the ball and playing flashy running rugby. By KEN BORLAND.
The build-up to the game had been dominated by talk of the Wallabies running the conservative, “plodding” Springboks off their feet at a “fast” venue that had seen them lose all seven of their previous matches there.
But by the end of the match, it was the Wallabies who were struggling to keep up with the pace as the Springboks collected a rare bonus point for four tries and Australia did not cross their tryline for the first time in 12 years.
“Bad enough that the Wallabies game doesn’t appear to fit the limited skill levels of the people trying to implement it, but the way they are even attempting to play the game is seemingly out of sync with what these days constitutes winning rugby.
“Box kicks, aggressive rush defence, set-piece dominance – these are the building blocks of victory in this year’s Rugby Championship and if that all sounds like a throwback to the bad old days of 2007, when, perhaps not so coincidentally, South Africa last won the World Cup, then maybe Australia is only penalising itself by so stubbornly committing to entertaining rugby,” Wayne Smith wrote in The Australian, using so many things Meyer has been criticised for to flog the Wallabies.
But while the home side were poor, that should not detract from a top-class performance by the Springboks, one of the best in their history and their biggest away win in the southern hemisphere competition.
Meyer said after the game that it had firstly been a triumph of the mind – they needed to believe they could win at a stadium where they have suffered so often in the past – and secondly a victory achieved without the ball.
Amid the euphoria of the clinical counter-attacking rugby of the final quarter, one should not lose sight of the fact that the opportunity to score those tries came from a brilliant defensive effort and complete control up front.
It was not only a massively physical defensive effort but also a clever one, which showed pace and technical skill, qualities not always associated with a side lauded more for their size than their wits. The Wallabies runners were always going to avoid a physical confrontation in the channels close to the rucks, but the Springbok defence had the pace and anticipation to seal up the wider channels as well.
The Springbok pack was immense, humiliating Australia in the scrums to silence their scrum coach Andrew Blades’ bolshy talk before the competition of the new laws exposing the South Africans, being absolutely secure in the lineouts and dominating the breakdowns with a wonderful mix of brute power and skill.
Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen may be massive in stature, but they are mobile as well.
Even All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says the Springboks have upped the pace at which they play.
“They’ve kept their physicality but they’ve sped up their game, they’re using their backs a lot more and this will be the first time they’ve had so many bonus points in this competition. That’s a reflection on how they’re using the ball so they’re going to be really, really tough,” Hansen said over the weekend.
With Jannie du Plessis also immense in the scrums and Francois Louw superb at the breakdown, the backs had a wonderful platform and scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar really came to the party in terms of snappy service keeping the momentum going, especially in the second half. His long, flat pass out wide to Willie le Roux, to set up Zane Kirchner’s try, was sheer brilliance and caught the Wallabies defence napping as they expected another close-in ball-carrier to bash the ball up as had happened for the previous five phases.
Meyer’s decision to play Kirchner at fullback and Le Roux on the wing has also been justified. Kirchner has few frills about him, but he was solid at the back and, when he does join the line, he has the skills to make a difference as he showed in rounding off the Springboks’ third try.
And Le Roux still has the opportunity out wide to bring his wonderful attacking vision to the game, as he showed in setting up Kirchner and in gliding through for his own try that ensured the Springboks won in style.
After so many years of misery in Brisbane, the victory was sweet reward for two of the greatest Springboks, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana, who continue to defy their age with wonderful performances.
They combined superbly for the second try, De Villiers freeing Habana on the blind side, the wing showing he still has extreme pace as he cruised past Israel Folau and put in a chip kick that was brilliantly won by replacement lock Juandre Kruger, showing remarkable pace himself to get there. Pienaar then found De Villiers, running the perfect line, and the captain slid over the tryline, his fist aloft. The match was not quite won then, but it will remain the enduring image of a tremendous victory for an inspirational captain and his team.
Australia could never get to grips with the territory game required – the lack of a left-footed kicker cost them significant ground on several occasions – and flyhalf Quade Cooper was successfully cut off from his backline by the Springbok defence. The bonus point try was a classic example of how his tendency to try fancy stuff behind the advantage line leads to trouble for his own team more often than not – his attempts to goose-step and “show” the ball only succeeded in him losing possession to Vermeulen, whose offload out the back of his hand gave Le Roux the space to weave his magic.
Vermeulen was probably the outstanding player on the field, with the rest of a superb Springbok loose trio not far behind.
Van der Merwe justified his selection by throwing himself around the field with vigour, but the Bulls lock needs to cut out the indiscipline that leads to him conceding too many penalties.
The tremendous impact of the bench was also obvious.
Kruger, no doubt stung by his relegation to the bench, showed the value of having a mobile, skilful second-rower coming on later in the game and he was the most outstanding of the substitutes.
But the scrummaging and general play of Coenie Oosthuizen, Gurthro Steenkamp and Adriaan Strauss maintained the high standards of the starting front row and Jan Serfontein and Pat Lambie also produced pleasing cameos. DM
Photo: South Africa ‘Springboks’ rugby union team head coach Heyneke Meyer. REUTERS/David Moir
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