All Blacks: Bruised Springboks on a mission to reverse miserable form in Townsville
25 September, 2021, 2:10 pm
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber began his preparations for the test against the All Blacks in Townsville with an apology.
Having decided excuses weren’t an option immediately after the 30-17 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane last weekend, his team’s second defeat to them in as many weeks, Nienaber launched into damage control.
He did what any public relations advisor would ask of their client: Nienaber refused to apportion blame for another dud result that effectively destroyed his team’s chances of winning the Rugby Championship.
“We are sorry, that’s all we can say,” Nienaber said. “It was not a performance that was worthy enough for a Springbok jersey.
“We sincerely apologise. Everyone, from management, coaching staff — this was a very poor performance.”
There was more bad news: the Springboks, World Cup winners in Japan two years ago, also had to surrender their No 1 spot in the World Rugby rankings to the All Blacks.
Unlike the first encounter on the Gold Coast, when playmaker Quade Cooper kicked a late penalty to secure victory, the Wallabies drilled into their superior attack and fitness to triumph against the Springboks during the re-match at Suncorp Stadium.
The listless Springboks were short of ideas and out of gas; a strategy based on kicking, pressure and territory, effective during the 2-1 series win over the British and Irish Lions and in the two victories over Argentina in South Africa, were made to look outdated and cumbersome against the Aussies.
Following the humiliation by the Wallabies, who were coming off the back of three straight losses to the All Blacks, criticism of the world champions came in hot and heavy.
Former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains predicted the All Blacks’ outside backs would have a field day on Saturday and said the absence of South African teams from Super Rugby had hurt that country.
“I think above all the teams in the southern hemisphere they look to me like they have struggled the most … by not having Super Rugby,” Mains told Stuff. “I think Australia and New Zealand had enough Super Rugby to keep them on track and lift them up a level.”
There had been opprobrium even before the Springboks crashed in Brisbane. Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward was scathing when the Springboks lost the first test 28-26 to the Wallabies.
“I looked on in horror last weekend at the sheer poverty and boredom from the South Africa team against Australia,” Woodward wrote in a column for the Daily Mail. “Rugby was not – and is not – meant to be played like that and I’m just pleased Australia won.”
History will play a major role when the All Blacks and Springboks meet for their 100th test.
Originally to be played in Dunedin, where the two countries clashed for the first time in 1921, the game had to be relocated to Townsville after another outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand.
Mutual respect, combined with the All Blacks and Springboks not facing-off since their first pool game at the World Cup in 2019, a result of SA Rugby not allowing the Boks to participate in the Sanzaar tournament last year, has added to the anticipation.
The question is whether the Springboks, who aren’t expected to deviate from the tactics that brought success against the Lions, can slow the game down and suck the oxygen out of the All Blacks’ attack.
All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree, who played for the South African sevens team in the mid-1990s and coached the Durban-based Sharks between 2008-12, acknowledged it would be too late for Nienaber to alter the major framework of his game plan but believed he wouldn’t panic.
“They’ll be looking at parts of their game they’ve got to get better at, and also at parts of our game that are obvious threats.”
It isn’t as if Nienaber has inherited an inexperienced team following Rassie Erasmus’s shift to the director of rugby role at SA Rugby, either.
Only three players are missing from the team that started the World Cup final against England, although the loss of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit because of injury has been a major blow.
Despite scoring 170 points in four games compared to the Springboks’ 104, there’s potential for the All Blacks to be vulnerable; if their lineout doesn’t function, they can’t generate quick ruck ball or make poor decisions inside their own half it will fuel the Springboks’ confidence.
“I think their goal will be to be ruthless and clinical,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said in reference to the Springboks.
“They are at their best when they play a pressure game, a power game against you. That’s not to say they can’t do other things, but I think that’s when they are at their best.
“We have got to make sure that in those two aspects, that we win that battle.”