Springbok coach refuses to concede that selection decisions were behind Ellis Park setback
The All Blacks capitalised on a strong start to beat the Springboks 35-23 at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber was defiant that his selections for the second Test against the All Blacks were correct, even if compelling evidence on the field suggested otherwise.
Nienaber chose to start with inexperienced hooker Joseph Dweba and match-shy No 8 Duane Vermeulen for the crucial encounter. And both players struggled while the in-form Malcolm Marx and Jasper Wiese looked on from the sidelines as the All Blacks built up a lead.
Both players were substituted before halftime, but by the time Marx entered the match on the half hour, it was 10-0 to the All Blacks. When Wiese joined in the 35th minute, it was 15-0 to the visitors.
The Boks clawed their way back into the contest and led 23-21 with 10 minutes to go, but they faded badly in the dying moments of the thrilling contest as New Zealand scored two more tries to win 35-23.
Only they will know exactly how much it took out of them to fight back from such a large deficit, but they clearly ran out of puff at the end of the match.
Marx’s omission in particular was a mystery because he gave a brilliant man-of-the-match performance a week earlier when the Boks beat the All Blacks 26-10 at Mbombela. He made five breakdown turnovers in the match. At Ellis Park the Boks did not make a single breakdown turnover in the first half.
The most likely way the All Blacks would win at Ellis Park was to make a strong start. Marx’s and Wiese’s absence allowed the All Blacks a small window of opportunity and they barged through it.
Dweba, who was called up to start when Bongi Mbonambi pulled out with a knee injury, is clearly a talented player with a bright future.
But in the cauldron of Ellis Park, against the old enemy, in a match where the Boks had a chance to beat the All Blacks twice in consecutive weekends for the first time in a generation, the best players needed to be on the field for as long as possible.
Marx is not only the best hooker in the world on current form, he is quite possibly the best rugby player in the world right now too. Lukhanyo Am might have something to say about it, but that is another story.
At a lunch held at Pirates Rugby Club last Friday, 24 hours before the Ellis Park clash, former Bok coach Jake White was the guest speaker.
When he was asked about the Boks’ selections, he rightly said that the current Bok management do things differently and that it was working for them. But White pointed out that, as a coach, he would have found it difficult to justify to Marx why he was being overlooked to start a crucial match against the All Blacks for the third choice hooker.
“You give him a start in a 50th Test (at Mbombela), he plays a blinder and dominates the game, and then you drop him to the bench behind the third-choice hooker,” White said.
“It makes no sense to me, but I will say this, the current Bok management do things slightly differently. I’m not in that environment, so I don’t know exactly how it works. All I can say is I would have started Marx.”
Nienaber defended his selections, although he would give no reasons for why he made them.
“There’s always a reason – a rugby reason why we did that, but that’s privileged,” said Nienaber after the game.
“The players all know [the reason]. Every single player knows why we went that route and there’s a very logical reason why we did that.”
That might be so, but thousands of fans do not understand the reason. People who watch rugby and pay a lot of money, either by buying tickets or DStv subscriptions, do not understand it.
The best guess is that the Boks wanted to finish the game strongly in the last 20 minutes with the most effective players on the field at the death when the All Blacks are always dangerous.
But rugby matches at this level can be lost before halftime too. The Boks not only gave the All Blacks a chance to build a substantial lead; they also gave them the chance to enhance their confidence.
Even when the Boks roared back into the game, they only hit the front for the first time in the 68th minute and even then, the lead was a slender two points. The All Blacks were never out of it and never lost composure. And the reason for that was that they made a strong start.
A week earlier they never gained a foothold in the match, and we can coat it any way we like, but the reason the tourists struggled was largely down to Marx’s breakdown work, which inspired the entire pack.
That spark was missing at Ellis Park, which coupled with an improved display from the All Blacks forwards, put the Boks on the back foot. The home side might have fought back, but it cost them a lot of energy and they faltered.
Captain Siya Kolisi’s view that the All Blacks controlled the tempo of the match early on was a tacit acceptance that the Boks got it wrong at the start of the match.
“They controlled the tempo at the beginning of the game and they didn’t give us an opportunity to impose our game plan onto them,” said Kolisi after the match.
“The All Blacks moved the ball from kick-offs, rarely kicked out and we didn’t adapt quick enough. That first period where they got quick points by playing the ball.”
A lot of that quick ball came from breakdown dominance in the absence of Marx and an out of sorts Vermeulen.
All Blacks captain Sam Cane, who was excellent on the night, spoke of his side’s belief and composure.
“To be in a Test match like that tonight under immense pressure, in front of such a hostile crowd, and in a game that goes back and forth, belief and composure needs to be strong,” Cane said.
“That’s not always easy when you’re coming off a run of losses, and to produce that speaks highly of the group.”
It also speaks of a home team that took its foot off the throat by giving the All Blacks the little sliver of light they needed early in the game. And they paid the price. DM