De Villiers’s brave new gameplan wasn’t the reason

2008-08-31 00:00

PLEASE, pretty please, let us have no talk of the Springboks’ brave new game plan finally coming together at Ellis Park on Saturday when the woeful Wallabies were dumped 53-8 in the Tri-Nations international.

The Boks ran in eight tries to one, but this was reward for direct, basic and sensible rugby rather than because the South African players had suddenly stumbled on the Peter de Villiers’s blueprint for expansive rugby.

They were also helped by the dreadfully inept Australians who had gone walkabout since their Durban victory the week before and did not pitch up, in mind anyway, at Ellis Park on Saturday.

The South Africans finally produced the type of rugby everyone knew they could play. Gone was the frenetic approach of the dark previous weeks when they played behind their forwards, running the ball in their own half, often across-field, away from their heavy men before promptly handing over possession to their opponents.

Rugby, in spite of confusing law changes and confused referees, remains an essentially simple game when the players — and the coaches — keep their eyes on the ball and their feet on the ground.

And the Boks did that on Saturday. Butch James and the other kickers ensured the game was played in the opponents’ half, the set piece work was solid, the ball was kept in front of the forwards and the Boks only involved their outside backs once they had breached the gainline and disrupted the Australian defences.

And, when the Boks are running on to the ball, everything else falls into place. Their forwards, closer to the collisions than in previous Tests and arriving in greater numbers, cleared out effectively at the breakdown and, on the front foot, halfbacks Fourie du Preez and James were able to dictate play. And, because the Boks had the momentum, the support was stronger, passes went to hand and continuity was maintained.

Even referee Bryce Lawrence appeared to be caught up in the general bonhomie and, unlike Perth, Cape Town and Durban, where the Boks suffered at the breakdowns and lost, this time many of the marginal decisions went their way.

The Australians, with the main job done at King’s Park, looked like the South African cricketers, lacking in application, focus and commitment, desperate, like ET, to go home. And what goes first with listless teams in that mood is the defence and the Wallabies consistently failed to make their first-time tackles, enabling the powerful Bok loose forwards and the excellent Jean de Villiers in midfield to constantly cross the advantage to set up quickly-won rucks.

It was the rugby that the Boks play best, exploiting the power of their set pieces, the athleticism of their backrow and their pace out wide.

If this is the rugby De Villiers wants the Springboks to play, then it is back to the future and the South African rugby public will be happy. It is rugby which is logical, sensible and effective. The nagging concern, of course, is that the Boks won in spite of their coach and not because of him and we will only see on the tour to the United KIngdom in November whether De Villiers and his coaching staff have learnt from this experience.

Where De Villiers does deserve credit is in retaining his confidence in the players, in not blaming them for the run of defeats and in refusing to bow to pressure to make wholesale changes to his starting line-up.

Springbok captain Victor Matfield, who has been well below his best in recent weeks, praised the consistency of the selection process.

He and Wallaby captain Stirling Mortlock agreed that the Boks had taken their scoring chances impressively.

“Every time they created they used the opportunities,” said Mortlock, “and every time we were turned over they punished us.”

De Villiers conceded that the Springboks’ massive win had been the result of more structure in their game and because they had opted to play the game in Australian territory

While critics were unanimous that the Boks had returned to a game plan which works for them, De Villiers took his own message from the win.

“There has been plenty of criticism, but this win shows that the process is now beginning to work,” he said.

Visions and processes … it sounds depressingly familiar.

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