After witnessing the Springboks comfortably dispatching the Wallabies at Newlands last night, I would have to say I think that the lawmakers have thoroughly butchered the implementation of the ELVs. When a player with the attacking chops of Bryan Habana is reduced to chasing up and unders as his major contribution to three consecutive tests, surely something has gone horribly wrong.
After doing away with the endless short arm free kicks that turned the 2008 game into a glorified tap’n’go, this year’s version has reduced rugby to a ten man game of forceback that it is difficult to imagine anyone other than ‘Sir’ Clive Woodward getting overly excited about. Never has the kick and chase game been so prevalent, and never has there been so little incentive for playing the high speed, high risk, high gain game the All Blacks have favoured in recent years.
Despite an early try to full back Adam Ashley Cooper from the first play of the game, and a fine solo effort from playmaker Matt Giteau in the second half that suggested the Wallabies might just have enough ticker to counter the Boks relentless physical assault, this was a game which the Boks dictated and were allowed to play totally on their terms. The metronomic boot of Morne Steyn again kept the Wallabies in their own half, where they were allowed the lion’s share of possession whilst the Boks waited for the errors that invariably come with consistent pressure.
In fact, possession is no longer the be all and end all that it used to be, particularly inside your own half, with errors likely to cost you three points – territory is the new god (which is where the All Blacks got it so horribly wrong in Durban, attempting to run the ball from deep, and steadfastly refusing to kick themselves out of trouble). Having the ball and trying to hang on to it is now very, very difficult. Schalk Burger’s suspension has been an unexpected bonus for the Boks, allowing them to break from a loose forward trio that relied on brawn and brutality in favour of something approaching guile in the form of genuine openside Heinrich Broussouw, who, once again, was superb.
Matfield, too, is in rare form, dominating a Wallabies lineout with only two specialist lineout jumpers (compared to the Boks four), as well as running rampant in general play, including a fine try when he regathered an unlikely left footed grubber from captain John Smit. Victor’s wingman “Justice for” Bakkies Botha put in his usual brutish display (oh, we’d love him if he was one of ours), while blindside Juan Smith could well be the casualty when Burger inevitably returns.
Yet despite all the positives in the Boks’ play – their control, patience and ability to be clinical in their execution, I can’t help but think that they are not a brilliant side, like say Tana’s 2005 All Blacks in their clean sweep of the Lions were, or Woodward’s World Cup winning side of 2003 (loathe as I am to admit it). It is a very limited, if tiresomely effective way to play the game, which is being rendered almost invincible by the framework of the current rules, and Steyn’s lethal goalkicking. If the Boks were looking for the missing piece of the puzzle during the Lions tour, they seem to have located it now with Steyn’s inclusion in the starting XV.
They do, however, appear to lack flair, or at least the flair they do possess is being seriously underemployed. Morne Steyn is not much of a ball running five-eighth, despite his try against the All Blacks. Jean de Villiers has been well below his best, and his and Habana’s knack for intercept tries seems to have deserted them, which will come as some small relief for All Black fans. Francois Steyn appears to dividing his time between pondering drop goals from 60 metres, flicking his 70’s porn star hairdo out of his eyes, and thinking about what he will have for lunch when he touches down to play for French Club Racing Metro at the end of the Tri Nations.
I still think they could come horribly unstuck on tour – without the support of their rabid (sometimes literally) fans influencing and intimidating referees, they will not find it quite so easy to draw the penalties they need to keep the scoreboard ticking over in the absence of much in the way of genuine linebreaking ability – they are nothing if not predictable. You know what you are going to get from these Boks, so the issue becomes whether you can weather the storm and tough it out for the full 80. The Wallabies will need to sort out a lineout that looked every bit as shabby as the AB’s, and also work on the ill-discipline that gifted the Boks easy points. They will be heartened by improvements at scrumtime, and by a more composed effort from scrumhalf Luke Burgess.
The All Blacks, on the other hand, will inevitably get better; they have to, there is scarcely room on the scale for them to get much worse than the monstrosity of Durban with its attendant atrocious handling and decision making. The Boks obviously have the box seat – for now. But if we can win in Sydney, the Tri-Nations becomes a bit of a sprint for the finish line – let’s hope we are not left ruing the bonus point that we clumsily let slip away from us in Bloemfontein.
– Jeremy Taylor