Rugby: Springboks have necessary might but lack smarts

By Peter Bills

The All Blacks' 30-14 victory over Australia on Saturday will have been closely watched by the Springboks. Photo / Paul Estcourt
The All Blacks' 30-14 victory over Australia on Saturday will have been closely watched by the Springboks. Photo / Paul Estcourt

The Springboks cannot have failed to digest the lessons of the All Blacks' latest triumph.

Handle the intensity and physicality of the New Zealanders on the gain line or forget about winning rugby matches against them.

In one sense, this message will have had tough Springboks like Bakkies Botha, John Smit, Schalk Burger, Gurthro Steenkamp, Bismarck du Plessis and Victor Matfield salivating. South Africa's big rugby men like nothing better than an almighty physical confrontation.

Doubtless, the Springboks will bear this in mind when they meet the battered Australians in Durban this Saturday. But overwhelming the powder-puff Wallabies is one thing. Doing the same to the physical All Blacks is quite another.

What this test match at Eden Park has guaranteed is that if New Zealand and South Africa do meet, as predicted, in a World Cup semifinal, observers can expect something close to World War III.

No Springbok worthy of his name has ever shied away from a physical challenge, and this lot won't either. But the 'Boks face one considerable problem. It isn't just a game of warring behemoths the All Blacks are playing.

That is the bad news for the reigning world champions. They can play that blood and guts stuff all night.

But therein the two proudest rugby nations on earth diverge. In a perfect world through South African eyes, that bish-bash stuff up front is the be all and end all of a rugby game. In New Zealand eyes, it is a means to an end.

The New Zealanders shut down the Wallabies, denying them space, time and momentum around the gain line.

And as the pressure intensified close in around the fringes, the Australians made more mistakes. The quick-thinking All Blacks fed off them like voracious animals.

Now the South Africans' No1 test side, not the apology for it seen in Wellington the previous weekend, won't necessarily lose the battle of physical might. But where they are vulnerable is in trying to match the invention, craft, speed of thought and creativity of the All Blacks behind the scrum.

The likes of Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Dan Carter are no defensive weaklings, as they all reminded us on Saturday. But as well as offering a readiness to commit to the physical fray, they possess an ability to make the right decisions under pressure and inventiveness that looks well beyond the scope of the South African backs.

You cannot select this expansive 15-man game the New Zealanders are embracing as though it were an item on the menu. You have to become comfortable with its demands, feel assured and confident when you move the ball from deep either in the counter attack or off your own possession.

That is where New Zealand and South Africa are so very different. The range of the All Blacks' game is so much broader. They can attack successfully within the width of a dining room table, as they did in creating Keven Mealamu's try. In that move, every player, whether a forward or back, attacked the line hard and straight in a superb demonstration of technical excellence.

But they can also attack efficiently out wide, using their wings mightily effectively, as they showed us in Wellington against the Springboks last weekend when four of the six tries were scored by the wings.

In a nutshell, it is the focus on an all-round game that is overwhelming all-comers and, in the process, sweeping the New Zealanders towards success at the Rugby World Cup.

Peter Bills is a rugby writer for Independent News & Media in London

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