Rugby Watch

The how of victory as important as the win

Heyneke Meyer finally wins one against All Blacks
Heyneke Meyer.jpg

The manner of the epic, hard fought 27-25 Springbok victory against their Nemesis, the All Blacks, in the final 2014 Castle Lager Rugby Championship match in front of a sell-out crowd of 62 000 at Ellispark on Saturday, was almost as important as the win itself.

The Boks terminated an unbeaten run of 22 games by New Zealand. The previous time the All Blacks lost a test was in December 2012 against England.

The coaching staff, led by Heyneke Meyer, deserves credit for identifying the folly of a stereotype and slightly one-dimensional pattern that culminated in the 23-24 defeat against Australia.

The Boks kicked an outdated pattern into touch. They embraced a more attacking and free-flowing style that resulted in more ball-carries. Consequently, it aided the Boks enormously in making a dent in the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility at Ellispark.

The wonderful try scored by Francois Hougaard encapsulated the new style of running rugby as the Boks started running in their own 22-area.

The All Blacks had to make 127 tackles at Ellispark. South Africa made 140 off-loads, which provides statistical support for the Bok’s new pattern of play.

Handré Pollard masterminded the Boks’ win with two stunning tries.

The New Zealand flyhalf, Beauden Barrett, was anonymous in this match and his woeful defensive efforts contributed to the defeat by the All Blacks. His half-back partner, Aaron Smith, was also not at his best.

Remarkably, every Bok-fan and his dog criticized Francois Hougaard before the home-matches against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, arguing that his tactical kicking was not up to standard.To a degree, this was a blessing in disguise.

Hougaard realized this and relied on Pollard to provide aerial relief, but he used his strengths, his passing and his running, to ignite some Springbok-attacks.

The decision to use Bismarck du Plessis at number two was also a master stroke, while Schalk Burger made a massive difference when he came off the bench. Duane Vermeulen did not play like a man whose participation was doubtful due to a rib injury.

In 2013, Vermeulen operated in the shadow of Keiran Reid, but this year, Reid did not have things his way. In fact, some newspapers, including the local Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, argued that Vermeulen is currently the best number 8 in the Rugby Championship.

The Boks also improved their discipline significantly during the home-matches of the series. Ultimately, they on average conceded only 9.4 penalties per match during the four-nations tournament.

Their lineout work was also exceptional, as the Boks won 91 % of their own lineouts, which was better than any other team in the Rugby Championship.

The New Zealand Herald conceded that the Boks have grown substantially as a team during the 2014-campaign.

Reflecting on the loss by the world-class and superb New Zealand team, the Herald said: (Steve) Hansen (the All Black coach) main takeaway will be about the opposition, rather than his own side. There was little surprising about the All Blacks - they produced a magnificent effort with a heavily-depleted team and fell just short.

“South Africa, on the other hand, crystallised just how dangerous they will be at next year's World Cup. This was a different Springboks side, one that took on the All Blacks at their own game and won. Their normally conservative nature was eschewed in favour of free-flowing attack that came from all over the park. And it's frightening to think what Handre Pollard can accomplish with a little more experience under his belt.”

Can South Africa significantly improve, as the Herald suggested?

Surely, the Boks ran out of steam slightly during the second half, lost some momentum via three steals by New Zealand, while their organizational defensive work in the midfield was not always up to scratch.

Cornal Hendricks struggled to contain Julian Savea, while Jean de Villiers had his share of trouble with Malakai Fekitoa (the scorer of the first try by New Zealand following an electrifying solo run by Savea).

But let’s not forget that five members of the Springbok-backline are 26 years of age or younger. Jan Serfontein, Pollard and Willie le Roux are only 25 and have only played a handful of tests each.

There are so many things that Bok-fans should celebrate, including the attacking skills of this backline.

Not many defenders in world-rugby can contain Savea when this machine of 1.94 metres and 108 kilograms starts one of his bullocking runs. He is like a 21st century version of Jonah Lomu. But unlike Lomu, he also has deft kicking and distributional skills, which makes him one of the world’s very finest backs.

Will this Springbok-team be fielded unchanged in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup?

The answer is that they probably won’t tinker too much to the Bok line-up that embarks within the next three weeks on their Northern Hemisphere tour, starting with the match against Ireland on the 8th November.

by Fanie Heyns

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