Over the next few weeks, Rassie Erasmus’ Springboks will be the stars of the most watched video in world rugby – the replay of their epic win over New Zealand. It won’t be the typical rugby footage technical analysts dutifully pore over. The improbability of the result in Wellington means the match will be treated with the due reverence of 80 minutes of film laden with clues of how the mission impossible of beating the All Blacks can be achieved.
To gain a sense of how the Boks’ 36-34 result rocked the world, one has to consider how they blew their own minds – and defied logic – in doing so. Going into the bout with the Goliaths of world rugby, the Boks were 10-to-1 Davids who had never won at the Westpac Stadium; had last beaten the All Blacks four years ago, with their last victory in New Zealand dating back nine years ago; and had lost to Australia – who had conceded 40 points in each of their previous two games against the All Blacks – the previous weekend.
The match statistics told an eloquent tale of a team that came second in pretty much every department except the scoreline, thanks in no small part to their gritty, unyielding defence.
Not quite back in the big league
In a game in which the hosts had 75% possession and 67% territory, the Boks put in a whopping 235 tackles, with the top five tacklers in the game all being South African: Franco Mostert (24), Pieter-Steph du Toit (24), Warren Whiteley (20), Siya Kolisi (16) and Steven Kitshoff (15). But it would be remiss to chalk the result down to just their defence, because their execution of strategy dropped broad hints for other countries interested in solving the Rubik’s cube Steve Hansen’s All Blacks have become.
It is said that to beat the All Blacks, you have to start well in the first 20 minutes, not allow them to score either side of halftime, match them for frenzied work rate in the final quarter, defend well, and take chances when they present themselves. The Boks succeeded at all but one of those non-negotiables, conceding 12 unanswered points in the first 20 minutes.
In true South African fashion, that slender win over the world champions – a team that has only lost four times since the inception of the Rugby Championship in 2012 – will hoodwink many of us into thinking the Boks are back on toe-to-toe terms with the All Blacks. But besides giving the rest of the world a blueprint of how to beat the black juggernaut, the victory has endorsed the path the Boks are on under Erasmus, confirmed that they have the players to beat the best, and that the best way back to equal status with the All Blacks is by playing to traditional South African rugby strengths – rabid defending and eye-watering physicality.
That shouldn’t, however, gloss over the fact that the Boks have won just half of their eight games under their new coach, with all four defeats (against Wales, England, Argentina and Australia) embarrassing for their ineptitude.
Few teams scream “under construction” as much the Springboks. Because Erasmus took over from Allister Coetzee with less than two years to next year’s World Cup in Japan, he’s had to develop depth as well as transform the team. As a result, not once has he used the same lineup in any of the eight games he’s been in charge. With no less than 19 debutants in eight games, consistency was always going to be the first thing out of the window as Erasmus tried to get to the bottom of what his core team looked like.
About the only area in which the Boks have been consistent is giving teams head-starts in the first 20 minutes and then climbing the mountain to follow. Their struggle to come to grips with defence coach Jacques Nienaber’s demanding defensive system has shown itself in how they’ve been breached out wide. Against New Zealand, they were still susceptible to being manipulated in the wider channels, but what was clear was that they had fixed their line speed, decision-making and scramble defence – telltale signs of the players’ desire to work for each other.
The Boks have had to rely heavily on their overseas-based players for leadership as Kolisi works out how to stamp his authority on the team as captain. But, with his democratic and inclusive style, he seems the kind of man whose charges would go to war for.
That said, there are glaring deficits in the depth of the team, although the problems at blindside flank have been temporarily papered over by utility forward Du Toit’s incredible form. Scrum half also remains a problem, if Embrose Papier and Ross Cronje not being used off the bench in the games against Australia and New Zealand, respectively, is anything to go by.
Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies are the incumbents who bring incredibly different attributes to the job of fly half. If studying the game against the All Blacks reveals anything to the Bok coaching staff, it will be that maybe it’s best to play them in the same team, with Pollard moving to centre, as he did late in the game in Wellington. That would go some way towards creating depth at inside centre, and allow the nearest thing to the perfect 10 everyone is looking for, 20-year-old Damian Willemse, to play consistently off the bench as he learns the ropes of the international game.
To put the miracle of Wellington into perspective for South African rugby, as Pollard described it, it was “relief” that “will turn into belief”.