Usually when the Springboks have lost three games in a row their next match is seen as a time of crisis and a win is an absolute imperative but what South Africans should really be hoping for is that Siya Kolisi’s men still have enough mental and physical energy to get themselves up one more time to be competitive against the All Blacks
It was interesting to hear Bok coach Jacques Nienaber speaking ahead of Saturday’s final Castle Lager Rugby Championship test at the CBUS Stadium on the Gold Coast about the unique challenges his men have had to face in this extraordinary year.
He kept saying he didn’t want to be seen to be making excuses, and he begged the media not to portray him as making excuses. That is understandable, and it is what sports people are expected to do. But sometimes reality is just reality and a fact is just a fact. And the realities Nienaber spoke about, such as the more than 14 weeks they spent in what he described as conditions similar to South Africa’s hard lockdown last season where everyone was confined to their homes, have been stumbling blocks, regardless of whether they speak about it or not.
ACHIEVED MAIN OBJECTIVE
That the Boks achieved their main objective for this year by winning the series against the British and Irish Lions after a 19 months hiatus from international rugby has made this comeback season a success for them. In fact, it could be said it was a success for both competing teams – they put up with the trying circumstances of the series chiefly in order to ensure that both entities stayed afloat financially.
The Boks just had to just make sure they played international rugby this year, they needed to fulfil their Championship obligations and put up with the quarantining and isolation, and more time in hotels, so that South African rugby could survive financially after the massive hits sustained because of the pandemic.
If anyone doubts that sports people find the quarantining and isolation within bio-bubbles a burden and a significant challenge, they only need to refer to the controversy around the England cricket team ahead of the Ashes series planned for this summer. The Ashes is supposed to be the pinnacle of test cricket, yet many of the England cricketers are understood to be reluctant to go if it means they have to jump through too many more Covid driven hoops.
Australia seems particularly draconian in their reactions to Covid outbreaks in their country and the England cricketers, who have returned to what you could call the new normal in their country, are said to be unhappy at the thought of more quarantining and isolation. And we can’t blame them, for surely all of us feel like that now.
We wrote about mental fatigue when the Boks lost their two tests against the Wallabies, it could just as easily have been described as Covid fatigue. Which not just sports people are feeling. Many of those of us who write about rugby, having lost the personal contact and ability to travel that used to make it fun, are feeling pretty zoomed out at the moment, and that word is used to deliberately because of the conveyor belt of online press conferences that have become the new norm.
IT COULD PROVE ONE BRIDGE TOO FAR
So if the Boks hit their final game of this tough phase in their comeback to rugby, where they’ve had maybe at most five days at home since June, in the state that Nienaber described, with at least one foot back in South Africa, it wouldn’t be surprising and it should be understood.
Last week they found the energy again because they were playing against the All Blacks, and a Bok will always be energised by the sight of the black jersey and the old foe. The Haka may intimidate other teams and nations, but if you speak to those who have faced it for the Boks, most will tell you it is a motivator.
From a South African viewpoint lets hope that is the case again on Saturday, for it is reasonable to question whether this might be a game that could prove one bridge too far and lead to a some degree of blowout should the All Blacks get more than a score ahead. If they are in the game throughout it won’t be a problem, it is if they go behind that the one foot on the plane back home syndrome could come into play.
EASY TO PINPOINT WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
On a purely rugby level, it is easy to pinpoint what the Boks need to do in order to go one better than last week by actually getting across the line as winners rather than unlucky losers last time out. The plan they employed in Townsville was the right one, they just need to be more ruthless and clinical when or if they are presented with the opportunity to put their boot on the All Black throat and close out a win.
In that regard they probably need flyhalf Handre Pollard to be significantly more confident and assertive, and have more of a presence near the gainline, than has been the case recently. They need to improve their discipline, not just on defence but also when on attack.
They need more of the same of what Lood de Jager in particular but the forwards in general provided at the defensive lineouts in their own 22. There were long periods the Kiwis spent in the Bok red zone last week and it was quite an achievement on the Bok part that they kept their opponents out. The All Blacks came close to putting them away on a few occasions in the middle stages of the match when they were dominating the penalty count. The Boks may not wriggle off the hook this time if that is repeated.
Perhaps more than anything they need to ensure they don’t have a repeat of what happened in their Brisbane match against the Wallabies where they go walkabout with their execution, where the mental fatigue becomes too much and suddenly they start doing out of character things like slipping tackles. Against the All Blacks that will be fatal and we will end up in a situation where long before the end of the game it is no longer a contest.
The Boks have one more 80 minute stretch to keep it together. They say they are going all out for the win and it will be a tremendous boost to them and credit to them after all they have been through to achieve a positive result against these opponents at this juncture of the season when they must surely just be looking forward to that home, sweet home feeling they haven’t experienced for so long.
SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux, Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Kwagga Smith, Siya Kolisi, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche. Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Jasper Wiese, Herschel Jantjies, Elton Jantjies, Frans Steyn.
NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett; Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Brad Weber; Luke Jacobson, Ardie Savea (capt), Akira Ioane; Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick; Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Asafo Aumua, George Bower, Ofa Tuungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ethan Blackadder, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie.