SA sighs with relief

2011-08-22 00:00

THE South African sigh of relief would have been heard in New Zealand.

Sheer desperation, intense physicality, scrambling defence and the boot of Morné Steyn carried the Springboks to an 18-5 Tri-Nations victory over the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth on Saturday and the victory could not have come at a better time. The alternative — a second successive Tri-Nations defeat on home soil, and to a watered-down All Black outfit three days before the naming of the World Cup squad — is too ghastly to contemplate.

The Bok display was by no means perfect. The Springboks missed some 30 first-time tackles and there was little fluency and imagination to their attack as they failed to score a try for a second successive home Test.

They were also helped on the day by an All Blacks team short of a number of world-class performers, a team lacking the usual composure and ruthlessness on attack.

But the positives certainly outweighed the Boks’ limitations on the day as a number of their senior citizens, in contrast to King’s Park the week before, stood up strongly and kept playing for 80 minutes. No longer was this a team playing by memory.

Bloodied but unbowed Heinrich Brüssow was immense at the breakdown and his fellow-flank Willem Alberts, who seems to be over the shouder injury which threatened to end his World Cup dream, and hooker Bismarck du Plessis were in typically bruising form.

The old firm of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha also confirmed they are ready for another World Cup. The Springboks set pieces were solid and the control in the scrum where Gurthro Steenkmap (and then Beast Mtawarira), Bismarck du Plessis (and then John Smit) and Jannie du Plessis (and then CJ van der Linde) stood firm and won crucial penalties.

Tackles were missed by the Springbok backs, but the hard-working Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and Francois Hougaard, on for the injured Pat Lambie after the first quarter, scrambled effectively.

“It’s not too often that you break the opposition’s line 23 times and you end up losing the match,” said All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith later.

“But it says a lot for the Boks’ scrambling defence. We lacked patience in closing those try-scoring situations, perhaps it was the new combinations or just youth, or maybe South Africa’s defence was just too good on the day.”

All Black head coach Graham Henry also praised the Springbok cover tackling.

“The Springbok scramble defence was outstanding and that was the main reason they thoroughly deserved this win,” said Henry.

“I thought the Boks were very good. They played with a lot of passion and kicked their goals. On the other hand, we had six opportunities to score and only took one of them.”

Matfield, the Bok captain, is keeping his feet on the ground.

“We do need to be honest with ourselves. There were players out of the All Black team and, make no mistake, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The performance was far from perfect.

“The important thing is that it helps build the confidence of the public and that will roll over on to us. There has been a lot of pressure on the team recently and some of the guys have felt it.”

De Villiers said that there will be no comment from the management on Lambie’s shoulder injury until after a proper assessment.

“We will know on Monday (today) what his condition is.”

De Villiers also said that Steyn, who kicked five penalties and a drop, was now his first-choice for the RWC. Butch James certainly offers more on attack and defence, but Steyn’s ability to turn pressure into points made a deep impression on his coach.

“We went through periods during the first half when we kept working our way into the All Black half and scored points. That is how World Cup rugby is played.”

“Morné knows now that he is very important to this team. He’s still our number one. I’ve never had doubts about Morné.

“Sometimes you have to make these decisions, to drop him for two games, to help his development. I know he can take this team to a World Cup and through a World Cup.”

De Villiers ignored the criticism of the Boks’ attack and emphasised that goal-kicking will be decisive at the World Cup.

“There are no bonus points for tries at a World Cup,” he pointed out.

Matfield was delighted with the character shown by the team under fierce pressure, saying that the Test showed that “we are coming together as a team”.

The Springboks can now prepare for the World Cup with their heads up, buoyed by this victory and a change in the mood of the rugby public. They are certainly not the finished article, but many of the pieces are starting to fall into place. And you could not have said that a week ago.

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