THE SPRINGBOK EVOLUTION
The Springboks clinched a late 30 points to 23 win over Argentina in their opening game of the 2016 Rugby Championship. The match itself was a messy affair with very little continuity from either side. The broken play, however, provided some key insight into the development of the Springboks play in the post Jake White era.
White took the Springboks into unchartered space with a highly technical and structured system. The Montpellier coach built on the traditional Springbok strengths and refined it to a point of structural perfection. At that point in time the style of play was wholly suited to the international game and gave birth to a golden age of South African rugby.
EVOLUTION OF THE GAME
The game has since evolved to a point when structural excellence at set piece is no longer the epitome of success but rather the foundation of success. The ability to field multiple ball players, play expansively within broken play and counter attack from anywhere on the park is what now defines success. The All Blacks provided a master class in the combination of structural and expansive excellence as they demolished the Wallabies in Sydney racking up 42 points in a run away performance.
Amidst the clutter in Saturdays test, the Springboks showed a massive improvement from the June internationals at the set price. The structure was great and the pressure applied at scrum time was reminiscent of the 2007 Springbok’s. Coetzee seems to be getting a handle on the combinations in the front row and will hopefully have settled on a final front row come the end of the Rugby Championship. There is no question that the Springboks can match and even outplay the All Blacks in this facet of the game, with the right coaching and selection.
A DEFINING MOMENT IN THE SPRINGBOKS EVOLUTION
There was one moment in the game that caught the eye of the astute observer, particularly one that wants to see the Springboks take the step up to compete with the All Blacks for global rugby domination.
The moment came when the Boks drove down the left side of the pitch, Eben Etzebeth passed to Bryan Habana inside the tram lines. Habana stepped inside and committed two defenders in taking him to ground. Etzebeth running in support at that point had one defender in front of him who’s momentum had him heading straight towards the breakdown. This left a gap open for Etzebeth four meters from the goal line. At this point Habana popped the ball up for what would have been a simple canter in for a try. Unfortunately Etzebeth completely misread the play and charged straight into Habana with the ball rebounding off him and into touch.
What may have seemed like an enormous frustration, should actually be viewed a key point in the evolution of Springbok rugby. Etzebeth’s action defined that of a typical South African forward, but Habana’s decision to look for the pop and avoid the breakdown was a carbon copy of what drove the All Blacks to their rampant victory earlier in the day.
Even more promising was the fact that Coetzee acknowledged this as a key lost opportunity in the game; “We started well, we let it slip through opportunities we didn’t take, especially when Bryan (Habana) broke and made the offload to Eben (Etzebeth) in front of the line.”
LEARNING FROM THE GREATEST
Habana has been playing in France for some time now and while many South Africans may claim the northern hemisphere game is slower and lacklustre, the fact is that the Top 14 League is packed with the greatest players in the world, many of them All Blacks.
The experience gained in playing alongside those who understand and execute the game the Springboks are trying to get to is priceless. The benefit is clearly indicated in this one moment that could well be the breaking point in the Springbok evolution.
Johan Goosen, another European based Springbok also illustrated the benefit in playing alongside the likes of Daniel Carter at Racing 92. Goosen and Faf de Klerk combined to score a fantastic short range try from set piece when de Klerk ran a sweep off the base of the scrum, fixing two defenders on the blind side and passing to Goosen on the cut to score unopposed.
The Springbok scrumhalf may have been credited with creating the try. Whilst his sweeping run was on point, it was the ‘late leave’ from Goosen that ultimately fixed the insider defender onto de Klerk. Leaving late on the run is something that the All Blacks have mastered, none more so than Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea. South African players fail to leave late and thus telegraph their lines, which makes it easy for the defense to pick them up. Goosen is the only Springbok to have effectively left late on a run in all four of the test matches played this year.
EYES WIDE OPEN
It can’t be seen as a coincidence that the two pieces of play that most closely resembled the All Blacks, and the type of rugby we need to play to compete has come from two players who are based in Europe. Two who regularly play with players who are well versed in that style of play. European based players are going to be a critical element in the Springbok evolution.
That missed opportunity between Habana and Etzebeth will open some eyes in the video session on Monday. Not because it was five points thrown away, but because it is clear that they have the ability to make those plays. The Springboks have the players to integrate it into the game and that the shift in mindset can be backed up on the field.
Coetzee has stated that they don’t want to copy the All Blacks and that they want to play their own game. That is absolutely the right call to make, the Springboks hold within them a uniqueness in physical prowess and intimidation that is not only core to the Springbok legend, but it is a cornerstone of the game of rugby and something we should rightly continue to perfect and execute.