Champs reduced to one-horse tournament

2012-08-27 00:00

IT is too early to be dogmatic about this, but it does appear as if the Rugby Championship has already been reduced to a one-horse race.

Hours after Wallaby coach Robbie Deans had declared the All Blacks “unbeatable”, the Springboks were scrambling to an undignified 16-16 draw against newcomers Argentina.

The All Blacks, with back-to-back victories over the Wallabies, head the log while the Boks have a win and a draw over the Pumas.

Four rounds still remain with the Springboks still to play the Wallabies and All Blacks home and away.

The All Blacks, clinical, ruthless and playing a modern game at a different level, thumped the Wallabies 22-0 on Saturday; the Springboks, predictable, untidy and old-fashioned, had to look to a charged-down kick to save them from the humiliation of a shock defeat in Mendoza.

Deans described the All Blacks as a “masterclass”, with the New Zealand coach Steve Hansen warning, ominously, that his team had yet to hit top gear.

While New Zealand and Australian coaches were reaching into a bag of superlatives to describe the All Blacks, the Springboks were dragging themselves through the painful process of introspection.

Coach Heyneke Meyer did not pull his punches in describing the Springbok display as “unaccaptable” after they were forced to recover from 3-13 down at half-time to draw 16-16.

Meyer made no excuses and praised the Pumas.

“We were not good enough and they played very well. We let our country and ourselves down.”

Meyer said the Boks’ problems, as was the case at Newlands a week earlier, had started at the breakdown.

“We could not get any quick ball, and when we did we lost the ball in good positions on the field.

“We have a lot of inexperience and youngsters, but it’s not an excuse.

“For a lot of these guys it was their first Test away from home, but we talk a lot about mental toughness and we needed to make the step up.

“We always knew they were going to come out hard at us and that it was going to be very tough, but you can’t afford to give away all those penalties we did early in the game. That was unacceptable.”

It is the Boks’ inhibited style of rugby that plays into the hands of both their critics and their opponents.

Their style relies heavily on either their big ball-carriers bashing (or flopping) over the gainline — where they quickly go to ground with the ball — or on speculative kicks in the general direction of downfield.

The opponents are waiting for them and possession is often surrendered at the breakdown or run back at them from wayward kicks. The Boks have steady rather than creative playmakers at flyhalf and fullback and they are desperately short of any X-factor throughout their team.

The All Blacks, in contrast, play the ball into wide, open space and make passes before they go to ground. They select players able to create and exploit gaps.

The Springboks, of course, should never abandon their traditional strengths, their pace, power and strength, but they desperately need to find a balance and tailor their approach to counter the modern defensive trends and changing laws.

The Boks arrive back home today and reconvene on Thursday to prepare for their clash against Australia in Perth on September 8. The squad to travel to Australia and New Zealand will be announced tomorrow.

The Argentinians, significantly, were not celebrating the draw and the first time they have avoided defeat against the Springboks. Instead they were voicing their disappointment at allowing a historic win to slip away.

“We had hoped for another result — a win. The team did a lot of good work at the breakdown, displaying a strength of Argentine rugby,” said coach Santiago Phelan.

Their hardworking number eight and captain, Juan Martin Fernández Lobbe, agreed. “We made progress from last week in Cape Town and now we must prepare for the biggest challenges we will face as players.”

It was, for Springbok and Sharks supporters, a perfectly decent Saturday night ruined by the Mendoza muck-up and the result at Loftus. Anyone for cricket?

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