BOKS ON THE ROPES
‘We have to be better, we have no choice,’ — Kolisi ahead of showdown with Wallabies
The Springboks still have a chance to win the 2022 Rugby Championship, but to achieve that they need to beat Australia in Sydney on Saturday.
The Australia horror show for the Boks continued in Adelaide last week and unless the world champions find a way not to botch the chances they will surely create in the return match in Sydney this weekend, the defeats will keep coming.
The familiar lament from Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and skipper Siya Kolisi throughout an inconsistent 2022 has been — “we didn’t take our chances”.
Kolisi was honest in his assessment that the players are blowing it and acknowledged that excuses have run out. They just have to find a way to win.
Kolisi and Nienaber are not wrong about lamenting squandered opportunities. But at the highest level of the sport, creating gilt-edged chances to score and then botching them like a schoolboy under-14C team, is starting to wear thin.
During last week’s 25-17 defeat in Adelaide, the Wallabies conceded 16 penalties and lost six lineouts on their own ball — and still won. That is a snapshot of how poor the Boks were in turning their dominance into points.
Finding the solution
Make no mistake, when things finally do click for this Springbok team, someone is going to suffer a thrashing. The problem is, Kolisi’s men seem no closer to finding the missing ingredients to turn those chances into points.
Maybe it will be Damian Willemse at flyhalf this week — thrust into the job because of injuries to Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies. Willemse has been excellent all season at fullback and centre and appears as likely as anyone to pressurise the Wallabies.
Maybe it will be Willie le Roux’s left-brained creativity from fullback that will deliver the cutting edge. His cameos this season have been joyous. After seasons of being the dependable last line, Le Roux has finally been given some freedom to express himself in 2022. And he’s been sublime.
Le Roux’s vision, gliding runs and lovely passing are traits that turn chances into tries. He and Willemse look like two players having fun. They’re playing sunny rugby, which is as bright as it is scorching.
Or it might be the youth and skill of the sparkling 19-year-old debutant Canan Moodie on the right wing that unlocks the Wallaby defence. He is fearless, fast and big. Bulls coach Jake White reckons Moodie might be the best rugby player he has ever coached. That’s high praise from a man who has seen it all.
But Moodie is on debut, he is inexperienced and he’s coming back from an eight-week injury. Oh, and his direct opponent is the human missile otherwise known as Marika Koroibete. It’s a tough stage for Moodie to play himself back into form.
It could be one, or all of those aspects that gives the Boks the missing components to their game.
Or it could be something else. Like the return of the in-form Jasper Wiese at No 8, or the dynamism of hooker Malcolm Marx back in the starting lineup for the first time since the Boks humbled the All Blacks 26-10 at Mbombela.
Marx’s omission for the Ellis Park return against the All Blacks, which South Africa lost 35-23, was a particularly criminal piece of selection. It was the ultimate embodiment of ‘process’ overtaking common sense and ‘feel’.’
The mistake was repeated in Adelaide last week with Marx, the most in-form player in the squad and possibly the best rugby player on the planet right now, missing half the game.
The momentum the Boks had after convincing wins against Wales and the All Blacks, shuddered to a halt at Ellis Park through the Boks’ own doing.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
That drained confidence and another tepid opening 10 minutes in Adelaide last week sucked the last vestiges of momentum from Mbombela away.
The small thread to cling to is that the Boks finished Adelaide strongly. Yes, the match was lost, but two tries from flank Kwagga Smith meant there was a small bit of good news to cling to — a tiny crumb of hope. A fast start in Sydney is essential.
But who really knows what the answer is? The team itself doesn’t even appear to have the solution either.
“We fully understand the (fans’) frustration. We accept that,” Kolisi said on the eve of the match. “When we celebrate, our fans celebrate with us, so we are also feeling the same kind of frustration.
“When we finish the game and we sit with the coaches and watch the game, we can see that we should have finished those opportunities. We feel that frustration.
“All we can do is say that we will do our best to do better this weekend. We are grateful for those thoughts and we do take them seriously because without the people we wouldn’t be able to do what we love.
“I hope that they don’t give up on us,” added Kolisi. “We have worked really hard this week and we definitely want to take our opportunities this weekend. We want to be as consistent as we can. We want to make sure that we start with better intent this weekend. “We have to be better, we have no choice.”
At both Ellis Park and the Adelaide Oval, they were 15-0 and 10-0 down respectively and couldn’t come back from those deficits. Starting faster, with more accuracy and intensity is vital in the quest to end a nine-year winless drought in Australia.
Playing catch-up against quality teams away from home, is seldom a recipe for success.
“We’ve addressed it and we addressed it today again. Starting with intensity is a big focal point for us. We could feel it last week. We didn’t miss a single tackle in that first try, but they had more intensity than us.
“When we sing the anthem, all you should be thinking about is your first actions. That’s important for us as a team and it has been addressed really well this week.”
Key to that will be early sharpness on defence and dominating the opening set piece battles.
Wallaby skipper James slipper knows that the Boks, stung after last week, will be an even tougher prospect this time around. And he knows that losing six lineouts won’t be good enough in the return match.
“(Assistant coach) Dan (McKellar) had us training pretty hard on the lineout, it was a big part of our game that struggled last weekend,” said Slipper.
“You’ve got to be honest there and you’ve got to get better because you know the Springboks are a good team. Not only the lineout, the scrum was under pressure at times, the set-piece is just so important at Test match rugby.
“We’re expecting a big focus on that tomorrow.” DM
15 Reece Hodge, 14 Tom Wright, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Hunter Paisami, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Nic White, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Fraser McReight, 6 Jed Holloway; 5 Matt Philip, 4 Rory Arnold; 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper (captain)
Reserves: 16 David Porecki, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Jake Gordon, 23 Andrew Kellaway.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Reserves: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 Duane Vermeulen, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Warrick Gelant
Kick-off- 11:35 (SA time).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ)