RWC 2023

Boks need a more ruthless mindset ahead of probable French quarterfinal showdown

Boks need a more ruthless mindset ahead of probable French quarterfinal showdown
Manie Libbok of South Africa before kicking for the posts during the Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B match against Tonga at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 1 October 2023. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

The Springboks will have to be more ruthless at turning the numerous chances they create into points at the business end of Rugby World Cup 2023.

The biggest takeaway from the Springboks’ 49-18 win against Tonga was the quality of the goal-kicking. After missing four attempts in each of their previous World Cup pool matches against Scotland, Romania and Ireland, the South African goal-kickers combined for a seven-from-seven performance against the Pacific islanders in Marseille on Sunday.

boks ruthless

Springbok Handre Pollard takes a kick during the warm-up before the Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B match against Tonga at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 1 October 2023. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

boks ruthless

Manie Libbok of South Africa kicks a conversion during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Pool B match between South Africa and Tonga at Stade Velodrome on 1 October 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

There was an edge and intensity about Handré Pollard and Manie Libbok whenever they approached the kicking tee. While the Boks were never in danger of losing to Tonga, both flyhalves were under pressure to deliver in this key department ahead of the playoffs.

Both players will take heart from that display in Marseille, as will a team that’s gunning for a second consecutive World Cup title.

Responding to the pressure

Last week, South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, went out of his way to alleviate the pressure on Pollard. The Boks’ first-choice flyhalf hadn’t played Test rugby in more than a year and – according to Erasmus – shouldn’t have been expected to fire from the outset.

Erasmus, head coach Jacques Nienaber and skipper Siya Kolisi also called for perspective on Libbok’s contributions.

Handre Pollard of South Africa passes the ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match against Tonga at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 1 October 2023. (Photo: Gaspafotos / MB Media / Getty Images)

The Bok leaders relayed this message to the public, with the aim of tempering expectations. Privately, the message to the goal-kickers may have been very different.

When Cobus Reinach crashed over for a try in the fifth minute, it seemed as if the Boks were on course for a substantial haul of points and that goal-kicking would have no bearing on the result.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby World Cup 2023

But when Pollard lined up the conversion, he wore an expression of fierce intensity, as if the team’s World Cup destiny hinged on that one shot at goal.

The game progressed, and while the Boks blew hot and cold in other areas, Pollard maintained his focus in front of the poles.  It felt as if every kick mattered, and by the time he was substituted for Libbok in the 50th minute, he’d nailed all four of his attempts.

It was interesting to note how Pollard embraced Libbok as he left the field. That interaction sent another strong message: Both flyhalves are working towards the same goal, and Pollard wants Libbok to succeed.

boks ruthless

Manie Libbok breaks with the ball while under pressure from Paula Ngauamo of Tonga during their Rugby World Cup France 2023 match at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on 1 October 2023. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

Like Pollard, Libbok lined up several goal attempts from the touchline. When Willie le Roux crashed over in the left-hand corner in the 58th minute, few would have expected Libbok to add the two points.

But again, there was that look of intensity, a sense of the kick mattering a great deal. The fact that Pollard had kicked all four of his goals may have added to the pressure on Libbok, and yet he held his nerve to bisect the uprights.

Despite what Erasmus, Nienaber and Kolisi had said in the buildup, it was so important that the Boks got it right in this department on the eve of the playoffs.

The Boks will enjoy fewer opportunities to score as the tournament progresses, and they will need to ensure that they take every chance they get.

Misfiring attack

Overall, the Boks have been far from ruthless during this World Cup campaign.

The coaches have kept their word and have rotated the 33-man squad over the course of the four pool matches. The team has played with balance and intent. In the department of attack, however, their conversion rate – particularly in the opposition 22 – has left a lot to be desired.

The Boks shouldn’t read too much into the results against Romania and Tonga. 

The Boks scored 151 points and 22 tries during the pool phase, although 83% of those points and 87% of those tries were scored in the matches against the tier-two nations.

The performances and results against Scotland and Ireland should inform the Boks’ preparations for the quarterfinals, where they’re likely to meet another top side in France.

South Africa ticked a lot of boxes in the matches against the Celtic nations. 

boks ruthless

Semisi Paea of Tonga is tackled by Andre Esterhuizen and Cobus Reinach of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match against Tonga. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

The defence conceded one try throughout those two Tests – a feat that’s all the more impressive when one considers that Ireland and Scotland are among the game’s leaders on attack. 

On the eve of the tournament, South Africa’s defence limited the All Blacks to one try in a 35-7 win at Twickenham.

In terms of their attack, the Boks used their set-piece power and kicking game to create a series of opportunities. Due to poor decision-making, handling and goal-kicking, they often failed to translate that dominance into points.

The Boks enjoyed six visits to the Scotland 22 in the opening pool match in Marseille, yet scored only twice. A further 11 points went begging via missed goal kicks.

The Boks impressed in so many other departments during that contest, and a 15-point victory against the fifth-ranked team in the world may well be viewed as a statement.

The fact that the Boks were creating so many chances through a more balanced approach was also viewed as a positive by the coaches and players.

Worrying conversion rate

This has been a trend for some time. The Boks lost 19-16 in Dublin last November after scoring on just four of their 10 visits to the Irish 22, and missing three attempts at goal.

In the big Pool B clash against Ireland in Paris on 23 September, the trend continued. The Boks delivered a mighty defensive performance. They created a series of scoring chances, yet only managed to add eight points to the scoresheet.

Goal-kicking was blamed in the aftermath, with four attempts drifting wide of the poles, and a total of 11 points going begging. The attack should have come in for more criticism, at least in the context of accumulating points in two of their seven entries to the Irish 22.

boks ruthless

Handre Pollard (left) of South Africa with captain Siya Kolisi during the warm-up before Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B match against Tonga. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Most expected the Boks to blow Tonga away in Marseille. Some may point to the final scoreline as evidence of a job well done. But closer analysis shows how they struggled to capitalise on their chances deep in the Tongan 22.

The Boks scored seven tries, but either lost possession or were turned over on six other visits to the red zone. While the Tongan defence certainly deserves some credit, a lack of patience, intensity and accuracy appears to be costing the Boks at crucial moments.

The Boks are unlikely to get 13 chances to enter the French 22 in the upcoming quarterfinal, and may not have seven chances to kick at goal. They won’t win that match, or the subsequent semifinal and final, unless they adopt a more ruthless mindset.

There have been suggestions that the Boks have been holding a few things back during the pool phase. While that may be the case, the execution of those plans – and indeed the team’s overall conversion rate – will be paramount next weekend.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the Boks win their quarterfinal through an expansive display or a more pragmatic approach that leads to multiple shots at goal.

All that matters from now on is that they convert the bulk of those scoring chances into points. DM


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