The Force Is Gathering

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Grant Nisbett intoned that headline ominously as another wave of Springbok attackers crashed the beleaguered All Black defenses, with the only certainty being a penalty conceded and the eager boot of Morne Steyn. The scoreline might have been similar, but this defeat was a far more humbling one, and this particular All Black side looked like bumbling amateurs when set against the confident, brusing rugby touted by the Springboks.

Thing is, though, they aren’t amateurs. And most All Black sides of the amateur era would have run this side over as nonchalantly as John Smit’s team did this morning. Most All Black sides of the amateur era could catch the high ball, could win their own line out, could figure out that constant infringement against a side with a 80% plus goal kicker was not a strategy worth pursuing.

Not our guys. The number of times the ball bounced off Sivivatu, Rokocoko and Donald’s sholuders as they leapt clumsily for a bomb was inexcusable. Similarly, on the rare occasions we had somehow gained possession, the number of passes which went to ground, behind players, through players – even, on one awful occasion, straight past players and across the dead ball line – the whole panicked, desperate nature of the transfer of the ball from one All Black to the next looked irretrievably broken.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a game where we shucked off the hemmed in, structured game which has became the norm in international rugby. Where we made use of our creative backs, and our speed across the park. Where we let the All Blacks be the All Blacks, and screw those who’d tell us otherwise. Through the build up and early stages Nisbett and company (who would have a good line in to this team) talked of the word being that this was what was coming, and when Isaac Ross scored a neat sideline try which appeared out of nowhere, you allowed yourself to dream, for just a moment, that we were going to see something special.

Then Steyn hit a penalty, then another, and suddenly the lead we’d dazzlingly stretched on the back of Ross’ try was a meagre point, and the scale of what faced us was clear. These Springboks could score more tries than they do pretty comfortably, easily three or four a match. But they’ve no need to. Such is our grasp of the myriad ways to offend at the breakdown and tackle, of how to turn a ball over and lose line-out ball – so well-versed are we at these base arts that they know possession in the opposition half brings points, and sooner rather than later.

So the new, improved, devil-may-care All Blacks this morning resembled nothing so much as the Warriors c. 2000, madly throwing the ball around no matter where they were on the field, hoping against hope that the boundless creativity latent in the limbs of our backline would somehow explode into a masterful length of the field try. That try never came, and too often we saw insanity like Sivivatu’s (error in the original – gave ‘credit’ to the wrong inept wing) Rokocoko’s failure to ground the ball behind his own tryline, which came within a hair’s breadth of disaster, or those two insipid intercept passes that Donald threw around the half-time break.

We played attacking rugby from everywhere, even though our error rate (27 turnovers, 14 penalties conceded) virtually guaranteed a change of possession. When we did decide to kick the ball, we would send it to the Springbok backs in space, where their monumental punting would have us throwing into a line-out near our own line – an area we scraped 50% of the ball from, though it felt like less.

That the score was only 31-19 you can put down to one freakish try, which came against the run of play and seemed to only galvanise the Springboks resolve. No All Black covered themselves in glory tonight, and as much as Donald had the worst game of his inauspicious career, it was a team defeated by a ruthless, extremely efficient opposition.

Perhaps the only thing you can be positive about from this annhilation was that it occurred in 2009, rather than 2011. We’ve made a habit for as long as I can remember of sweeping all before us between World Cups, so maybe it’s good for us to be down and (nearly) out here rather than getting brash and complacent. But something huge needs to change (starting with Carter’s return, and then some) for this side to have any pretensions that it can stand alongside the world’s best.

– Duncan

PS – Here’s a couple of photos I took during the pre-match. Note that the Springbok backline is so undersized that Habana had to carry one of his teammates onto the park – further grist for the All Blacks shame mill.

Brian Habana and Francois Steyn take the field in Durban

This might have been my favourite moment of the match. I’m pretty sure Percy Montgomery, the most capped ‘Bok of all time, is wearing a home-made McDonalds arm band. I have no jokes for this. I thought I really liked the golden arches, but neither I nor John Daly have ever gotten this deep.

Percy Montgomery loves McDonalds

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