Boks set to compound All Blacks’ misery at Ellis Park citadel
The Springboks are improving with each match this season, whereas the All Blacks appear to be going the other way.
The good news for the All Blacks is that they only have one more match to go on this short tour. The bad news is that it’s at Ellis Park against a rampaging Springbok side who feel they still have much more to give.
Both sides travelled to Johannesburg from Mbombela on Sunday, 7 August, wearing bruises of yet another massively physical encounter at the Mbombela Stadium. The Boks though, have no mental wounds after their emphatic 26-10 victory – the biggest winning margin in the professional era.
The All Blacks, by contrast, are carrying the psychological trauma of being badly beaten by their fiercest rivals so soon after losing a home series to Ireland. This was their third Test defeat in a row and their fifth in six matches. The All Blacks are developing scar tissue upon scar tissue.
And unlike many times in the past, the Boks are not content with the bragging rights for one victory. They have the knife in and they intend to twist it further.
Bok hooker Malcolm Marx, whose brilliant display at Mbombela earned him the man-of-the-match award, issued an ominous warning: “We will never take anything for granted, so we will work equally hard next week and do as much as we can so that we are up for the challenge.”
The message is clear. The Boks are on a journey to defend their Rugby World Cup title in France next year but along the way they intend to dominate weekly.
After experimenting against Wales in July, a dress rehearsal for the Rugby Championship, the goal and mindset has changed. Now it’s about producing quality performances and creating the kind of consistency that makes very good teams great. And despite their struggles, the All Blacks remain the major yardstick.
Because of the respect the Springboks have for the All Blacks, they will not let up after one powerful performance. The ultimate respect they can show to the opposition — and, more importantly, to themselves — is to continue to raise the bar.
Both sides will go into the second Test, which will decide the winner of the Freedom Cup, with changes.
Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and wing Kurt-Lee Arendse will almost certainly miss the match. Both were stretchered off after being knocked unconscious at either end of the match. It would be highly irregular if they passed concussion protocols this week.
Arendse, who had a wonderful match before earning a red card for a reckless but not intentional clash with Beauden Barrett that saw the All Black land on his head, is likely to face suspension too.
For the All Blacks, fullback Jordie Barrett limped off and appears doubtful for the return match.
There will be no let-up for the beleaguered All Blacks, who face the prospect of trying to end this slide at Ellis Park, one of the toughest citadels in world rugby. They are under immense pressure.
Some of the best All Black side sides in history have endured losses at Ellis Park, while even great New Zealand sides have struggled to put away modest Bok teams in Johannesburg.
Expecting this callow All Black squad to turn the tables on a Bok team so secure in its skin is asking a lot.
Where the Boks are assured and clinical, the All Blacks are confused and erratic. In Mbombela, the All Blacks were smothered in almost every facet of the game and were reduced to relying on individual skills to break the Bok line.
Only flyhalf Beauden Barrett, midway through the first half, and wing Caleb Clarke late in the second, managed to make line breaks and force the Boks into scramble defence.
How the All Blacks will turn it around in a week is almost impossible to fathom. The Boks are cohesive and with their fifth Test in seven weeks coming up, they are clicking into gear. Coach Ian Foster appears to be on his way out with almost everyone in New Zealand piling in.
Boks are not a mystery
There are no mysteries in the Bok set-up. Everyone knows their roles, the players are comfortable with the plan and there is a sense that the Springboks are still playing within themselves.
Take the lineout for example. The Boks hardly fired a shot when their plan of throwing to the middle and setting up a maul was stopped. There was very little variation in the Bok set piece on Saturday, 6 August, almost certainly because it was part of a plan.
South Africa’s lineout is too potent and stocked with too many world-class forwards to be limited to one or two options. It’s likely that a little more of the playbook will be revealed at Ellis Park and beyond.
The Boks have many ways to win, all stemming from their superior power, aerial skills and swarming defence. Constant carping about the aesthetic value of the Boks’ style (from media and fans, not from opponents) only serves to convince them that they are on the right track.
At its core, and the higher the level, rugby is a contact sport of brutal physicality. All teams at this level are tough and physical, but the Springboks have a little more. They are able to produce a level of intensity and power over 80 minutes that few can match. If they start well, it’s almost impossible for the opposition to find a way back into the match.
The Boks of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus continue to build an impressive body of work, to which this victory over the All Blacks adds to the legacy. DM