The tale of two teams

2007-09-25 14:47

World Cups are wonderful things. Aside from the obvious allure of the world's great rugby nations competing for the game's most cherished prize, there's always enough bubbling on the backburner to sustain interest.

For example we've already learnt that, yes, it is fiendishly satisfying to watch a pinprick island like Tonga (population 117 000, weapon of choice: coconut) knock over the might of the USA (population 301 139 947, weapon of choice: nuclear bomb) at anything, and yes, it does seem that the citing commissioner is, like me, paid per word.

And, to top it all, we've also found out just how long it takes to travel that glorious road between the penthouse and shithouse of rugby performances. Eight days, exactly. Just ask Jake White.

Where Friday brought the pasting of the Poms, Saturday week saw the Boks stumble against those tricky Tongans. They secured the win, and White declared that he never thought the Test could be lost, but if he's honest he'll know it could have been.

And that poses the simplest but most important question yet: why was the unthinkable thinkable?

Whilst it is tempting and convenient to explain the difference in performances as merely the result of insufficient quality in the Bok back-up, it should not be so easily accepted.

No weak link

Of the team that started against Tonga, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Wikus van Heerden and JP Pietersen starred against England.

Gurthro Steenkamp is no weak link, Gary Botha has often been trumpeted as the nation's finest hooker, and CJ van der Linde has been a Bok regular for three years.

Ricky Januarie and Andre Pretorius have won Tests for the Boks against the All Blacks, Wynand Olivier started every Test last year, Ruan Pienaar is a prodigy and Wayne Julies has never let his country down.

This is no gaggle of dirt-trackers. This is a team that seriously underperformed. Why?

Against England, the Bok strategy was clear because of the effectiveness of the execution. White targeted fullback Jason Robinson and left wing Paul Sackey because of their ineffective kicking games.

Both Robinson and Sackey were regularly kicked on, and Robinson's obsession with counter-attack and Sackey's inexperience combined with his inability to kick with his left foot meant the Boks really turned the screws in this area.

As proof, all three Bok tries were scored down Sackey's wing. That's no co-incidence.

Pre-game, the Bok brains trust identified the most obvious English weakness, and the likes of Fourie du Preez and Butch James ensured the plan was not overshadowed by the occasion and stuck to for 80 minutes.

In contrast, the Boks of Tonga ditched the script.

Sap their strength

The Tongans frothed in the build-up about the ferocity with which they would meet the challenge of the tournament's second favourites.

Such an approach is countered by not letting the match become a contest. Kick the corners, turn the forwards. Sap their strength in the mauls. Keep it tight and frustrate the backs wanting to make a big hit. Milk a penalty for offside and take the points. Counter blind passion with ruthless precision, wait for the mistakes, and when the adrenalin has worn off, open up and finish them off.

There is no doubt that those were the Bok instructions, a plan to win the game. When the goal is shifted to winning a place in the first XV, however, it is clear what results.

Pretorius in particular was at fault. He is a fine player and playmaker, perfectly able to dictate in the manner White requested. In an effort to cram an entire season into 80 minutes, however, he played to his own plan and only lasted 50.

When White turned to his benched stars en masse, he knew he'd get what he asked for pre-game. And hence the result followed.

White will name a full strength side to take on the USA, and with the knock-out stages to follow, the best available side will start for the rest of the tournament.

The specter of injury and citing remains, however, and it would be foolhardy to think that the likes of Olivier, Van Heerden, Pienaar and Steenkamp will not be called on again.

Let's hope the lesson is learnt.

  • Chris is Chief Rugby Writer at Sports Illustrated and a former SAB Rookie Sports Journalist of the Year.

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