Peter Bills: Fossilised Springboks have the talent to adapt to creative new game

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Gerhard Mostert of the Springboks looks dejected during the Tri-Nations match against the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Gerhard Mostert of the Springboks looks dejected during the Tri-Nations match against the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

Sometimes, even in moments of the greatest adversity, you spy little rays of hope.

Adversity for South African rugby men does not come much bigger than a 40-7 thrashing by their greatest rivals, the All Blacks. Inevitably, it was as one-sided a contest as a scoreline of six tries to one suggests. The Springboks were out-muscled up front and completely outpaced by a New Zealand team that showed exactly why the host nation will start the Rugby World Cup as clear favourites.

This Springbok side could not live with the physicality, speed or sheer creativity of their opponents. The New Zealand attack cut the South African defence to pieces and the margin could easily have been greater.

Yet even so, as the South Africans continued to ship points in the second half, a clear message could be drawn from this second Tri-Nations defeat. Contrary to the belief of many, including their national coach, South Africa do have players capable of performing under the opportunities afforded by the new law interpretations.

As Peter de Villiers mixed and matched his side with substitutions in the second half, it became clear that the South Africans could have built a side long ago based on pace and the ability to adapt to the "new" game.

Who on earth could say that players like Gio Aplon, Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Chilliboy Ralepelle, Juan de Jongh and Ashley Johnson do not have the speed to play modern test rugby as the new law interpretations offer? It became increasingly obvious, as de Jongh asked questions of the defence with his fast, straight running, Ralepelle astonished observers with his pace, Mvovo chased kicks and Lambie got his backline moving by playing so much flatter than Morne Steyn in Sydney last week, that here was the genesis of a whole new playing philosophy by South African rugby.

Of course, it will have been viewed as an irrelevance by the Springbok coach. He set out his stall four years ago in terms of how he wanted the Springboks to play and the personnel he would choose to achieve that. Keeping the ball in hand, basing your philosophy on attack and creativity by means of running rugby played little part in his approach. He wanted big forwards to bash away up front and a pair of kicking halfbacks to keep the ball in front of the physical pack.

So obsessed was Peter de Villiers with this game plan that the alternative, made increasingly propitious by the changes in law interpretations, was all but ignored. New Zealand did not ignore it. Their coaches saw the possibilities of such a creative game and the effect has been startling. They and the attack-minded Australians have left South African rugby far behind.

In Wellington on Saturday, the two different paths chosen by these countries were laid bare. As New Zealand scored six tries off from their forward supremacy, the South Africans had nowhere to go in their conventional game plan. If your forwards are beaten physically up front and outpaced, then cover out wide will be in short supply. It was no coincidence that five of the New Zealand tries were scored by backs, four by wings Corey Jane and Zac Guildford.

With the World Cup now only 39 days away, South Africa must stick to the rigid, restrictive game plan advocated by their coach for the past four years. It is far too late to change.

But what happened in patches in Wellington merits remembering. South African rugby does possess players of potential attacking creativity, vision and flow.

The pity is that the eyes of the South African national coaches have been closed to these possibilities. So they must play another World Cup wearing blinkers.

The danger of that New Zealand made clear at the weekend. Their rugby, forged on speed, vision and creative instinct, has expanded while the South African game has atrophied.

- NZ Herald

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