Sport

RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

Boks fall short of Rugby Championship glory despite victory over Pumas

Boks fall short of Rugby Championship glory despite victory over Pumas
Kurt-Lee Arendse of South Africa scores a try during The Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Argentina at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on 24 September 2022 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Anton Geyser / Gallo Images)

The 2022 Rugby Championship ended in disappointment for the Springboks after coming up short of stopping New Zealand.

South Africa 38 (17) Argentina 21 (7)

When the dust settles and Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and his staff have more time to pick over the bones of the 2022 Rugby Championships, they will no doubt rue many mistakes. Despite Saturday’s 38-21 win over Argentina to complete four wins in six matches in the competition, this will be remembered as a campaign of missed opportunities by the Boks.

The All Blacks won the title for an eighth time in this guise (since Argentina joined in 2012) with 19 log points, one clear of the Boks.

After New Zealand beat Australia 40-14 in their final round match in Auckland, the Springboks needed to secure a try-to score a bonus point and beat the Pumas by at least a 39-point margin in Durban. The Boks did neither.

That they had such a mountain to climb was not because of matters that transpired this weekend, but rather as a consequence of earlier failures in the tournament.

A week after thrashing New Zealand 26-10 at Mbombela in August, Nienaber tinkered with a winning team for the return match at Ellis Park and paid the price. 

His decision to move hooker Malcolm Marx to the bench and start with the inexperienced Joseph Dweba and also relegate No 8 Jasper Wiese to the wood and start with a rusty Duane Vermeulen after a two-month injury layoff, was crucial.

The Boks made a poor start and both Dweba and Vermeulen were substituted before halftime, but the damage was done as the All Blacks went on to win 35-23 after running into a 15-0 lead before halftime.

The Boks also lost to the Wallabies in Adelaide, but they did win two out of three games on the road, which is a more than acceptable return in the Rugby Championship. The Adelaide setback was not as decisive as losing at home to the All Blacks.

By the time the Boks arrived in Durban, needing to win by nearly 40 points, it had become unlikely that they would pip the All Blacks for the title.  But in the cold light of day, they should have come closer after failing to execute against the Pumas.

“We did everything in our power to win the game, but one has to look back at our two defeats and realise those are the missing points,” captain Siya Kolisi said.

“The margins of defeat in those games were too wide. If we fought hard and narrowed the margin of defeat in those games, we’d be having a different conversation today.

“We weren’t going to be chasing a massive score like today, but the one takeaway from the game was that we’ve improved as a team.

“We’re getting better as a side and we’ve won three consecutive matches, so we need to take that momentum with us to the end-of-year tour.

“We’ll be tested as a team and that’ll give us a fair idea of where we need to improve as a team ahead of the World Cup.”

Officiating woes

The Boks were so dominant in the first half of the Durban clash that leading 17-0 after 30 minutes, felt like they were losing. Not for the first time this season the Boks created a sweaty kitbag full of opportunities and only managed to convert two tries from them.

Argentina spent most of the first half on the back foot. They also spent 20 minutes of it with 14 men on the field as two yellow cards for cynical infringements in the red zone saw trigger-happy Australian referee Damon Murphy reach for his pocket.

Murphy would dish out four more yellow cards in the second half – two to each side – including the most ludicrous yellow for lock Eben Etzebeth. In all, he blew for 39 penalties – one every two minutes of the game.

If Rassie Erasmus, who served his final touchline ban this past weekend, were to record another video critique of this performance by the officials, it would be a six-part miniseries and not a lone 62-minute show.

Both the Springbok and Pumas’ technical staff might need a few weeks to sift through the dozens and dozens of decisions, compile them and send on to World Rugby with requests for clarity.

Obviously the players are not blameless, but this was officiating at a stupendously poor level. Murphy and his assistants, including Television Match Official Chris Hart, were appalling. The match was reffed with no feel and no consistency.

They couldn’t even look at the screen and see what millions saw, which was that Etzebeth’s slight shove on Juan Martin Gonzalez played no part in two Argentinian players, Emiliano Boffelli and Gonzalo Bertranou, colliding in mid-air.

It was as if the officials wanted to issue a yellow card and no amount of actual footage undermining their thought process would change their minds.

But the problems run deeper than officials who make decisions that are outrageously bad. The laws are a mess. Every ruck sets off a chain reaction where, if you slow down every action, a penalty infringement could be found. Often more than one could be the outcome, and to both sides.

Rugby’s complex laws and directives issued from high about player safety have sucked all flow from the game. In a sport where players run into contact at full speed, often with the ball carrier ducking to knee height, defenders are almost always going to infringe.

But many times, Murphy pinged either the Pumas or Boks for offsides, when it would take a forensic study in ultra-slow motion to decide if a player had strayed across the imaginary line.

Had Murphy played on in many of these situations, the game would have flowed and neither side would have suffered for a matter of a few centimetres. Referees are being asked to see dozens of potential infringements in real time, and they are failing.

Penalty shootout

Argentina conceded 22 penalties, two penalty tries, and four yellow cards. In their five previous Rugby Championship matches, they conceded 87 penalties or 17.4 per game. To suddenly shoot up by an extra five penalties was curious.

The Boks had only conceded 52 penalties in five matches (10.4 per game) but suddenly gave away 16 in this contest.

“For us it is not very clear, because in the first three games of the Rugby Championship we were among the least penalised teams,” Pumas coach Michael Cheika said.

“At one point the referee tells (captain) Julian Montoya he has empathy for him. We don’t need empathy, we need respect. It is very difficult to win games when decisions are made like this.”

Back to the rugby, such as it was, the Boks should have been out of sight by halftime.

After tries from loose forwards Jasper Wiese and Siya Kolisi from a pushover scrum and rolling maul respectively, they were on their way. A penalty from Frans Steyn put the Boks 17-0 up and heading to the break in a comfortable position. The dream was still alive although they should have had at least one more try in the first stanza to emphasise their dominance.

Steyn, playing his first Test at flyhalf since 2008, made numerous mistakes, including missing touch from penalties three times. It was a rusty performance for effectively the squad’s fourth-choice pivot.

Instead, it was the Pumas who scored before the break with Bertranou rounding off one of the few multiphase moves of the match. It was a kick in the guts to the Boks because the needed 39-point margin was pushed over the horizon. The world champions never recovered.

The second half saw the Boks suffer Murphy’s whistle, conceding seven consecutive penalties at one point. Argentina made the most of the momentum and scored a lovely try through Gonzalez to really end any Bok hope of Rugby Championship glory as the cards and penalties rained down. DM

Scorers:

South Africa
Tries: Jasper Wiese, Siya Kolisi, penalty tries (2), Kurt-Lee Arendse. Conversions: Frans Steyn (3). Penalty: Steyn.

Argentina
Tries: Gonzalo Bertranou, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Matias Moroni. Conversions: Emiliano Boffelli (3). 

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