Pressure begins to tell

2012-09-15 00:00

A CLASSIC contest, one between the old and new, the conservative and open-minded, the static and high tempo, awaits us in Dunedin today when the Springboks and the All Blacks clash in their Rugby Championship international.

The roof over Forsyth Barr Stadium will keep out the wintry conditions on the South Island, and a dry, hard and fast pitch is guaranteed.

Not that it will make a jot of difference to the Springboks. The Boks, selected by coach Heyneke Meyer, are committed to a tactical game, one based on territory, a physical pack and Morné Steyn’s boot.

The All Blacks, in vivid contrast, have promised a high-octane running game, one which exploits turnovers, counter-attacking opportunities and space.

The All Blacks’ world-class number eight Kieran Read said this week that playing under a roof made planning easy.

“It’s great you can trust what you put in place game plan-wise and really know conditions aren’t going to affect what you do.

“There are different pressures in Test rugby and it’s never easy to go out and play a free-flowing game when there’s a defence screaming at you. But we want to play fast and with the ball as much as we can, and see how that pans out,” he said.

The All Blacks’ game plan has taken a minor knock with scrumhalf Aaron Smith — who clears the ball with speed and precision — dropped to the bench after breaking team protocols. Piri Weepu, more physical but slower, is his replacement and the Boks will hope to break the All Blacks’ rhythm by pressuring him at the base.

But there is little cause for optimism in the South African camp. If the Springboks could not beat the Pumas and Wallabies away from home, what hope against the slick, world champions in their back yard?

Springbok rugby has simply not evolved as the game — and the laws — have changed.

The Springboks’ most influential players have either retired or been injured and Meyer no longer has the tools to do the job the way he wants it done.

The aerial attack can still be effective, but it relies heavily on forward domination, accurate kicking and a strong chase.

In recent weeks, as we saw against both the Pumas and the Wallabies, the young forwards have struggled and the days of the Springboks out-muscling opposition packs, playing subdue-and-penetrate rugby, are over.

And when Plan A fails, they do not have the backline skills — unless Meyer goes to the bench and involves Pat Lambie and Johan Goosen — to switch to Plan B.

The Springboks — with injuries in the front-row and a banning — have had a disrupted week, but they will still provide spirited, committed opposition today.

Written off as no-hopers, they will carry every advantage of the underdog, particularly if the All Blacks show any signs of complacency.

If the Bok forwards can gain a measure of control, and the backs, with rush defence, cut off flyhalf Aaron Cruden and the All Black backs from their forwards — as the Pumas did for an hour a week ago — then the New Zealanders can be shaken out of their comfort zone.

But passion and desperation can carry a team only so far and the All Blacks, with their superb backrow, sublime breakdown skills and slick backline, are expected to stretch away in the final quarter.

Jean de Villiers, at the captain’s press conference yesterday, admitted that the pressure and the criticism were getting to the Springboks.

“These are tough times and we need to pull together as a team and believe in our systems and where we’re heading as a team.

“The All Blacks have been the top side for a long time now and have been really fantastic at times, though they’re probably not firing at full cylinders,” he said.

De Villiers defended the Boks’ tactical approach.

“We have a specific plan of how we want to play, but if the opportunities are there to run the ball, we will.

“We have a new team, but it is time we made our own memories,” he added.

The signs are, at best, ominous. Stronger, more experienced Springbok teams have consistently failed in New Zealand against weaker All Black opposition.

Today, in conditions tailor-made for their expansive approach, and against a limited South African outfit short of confidence and attacking options, the All Blacks are overwhelming favourites.

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