The Springboks’ 100th test match against the All Blacks in Townsville, Australia, on Saturday was meant to be a showcase of rugby’s two most successful nations at the height of their powers, with hopes that it would take place with the Rugby Championship title at stake.
But after the Boks’ surprise but thoroughly deserved humiliation by Australia yesterday – following last weekend’s 28-26 upset – it now runs the risk of being an exercise in damage limitation for the world champions.
Jacques Nienaber’s men learnt the hard way that three weeks can be a lifetime at the business end of international rugby, especially if you allow your standards to regress to the levels to which the Boks have.
Heading into Australia, the world champions had won a hard-fought British
Now they head to that much-anticipated centenary game against their greatest rivals with their chances of defending a Rugby Championships they spurned last year gone. And their number one ranking evaporated after New Zealand beat Argentina 36-13 in the other game.
Having won just five of their games in Australia since readmission, and only three in Brisbane since 1956, the Boks should – at some level – have expected things to be tough going against the Wallabies.
What they can’t have expected was their putting in two back-to-back performances in which the standards of the main pillars of their success since 2019 – discipline and defence – have been eroded.
Like last weekend, Siya Kolisi’s men conceded two yellow cards, the first a particularly wilful act of petulance by scrum half Faf de Klerk, which gifted the hosts the relative leg-up of their first 12 points in the game, via two tries by centre Len Ikitau.
The slipped tackles – with fly half Handré Pollard and lock Marvin Orie featuring twice in each try – in Ikitau’s tries were a sign of déjà vu in the defensive effort, the Boks missing 20 in the match to last weekend’s 22.
While the scrums and line-outs were good, Australia’s unstinting maul defence and matching the Boks’ physicality neutralised the “soul” the visitors like to speak of. Throw in a slew of unforced errors, ranging from sloppy ball presentation, turnover ball and almost wilful handling errors – and the Boks were stuck in a game in which they made one step forward and several backwards.
Nienaber cut a dejected figure short of answers in the post-match press conference. “Everything [went wrong], we were thoroughly beaten,” he said. “We were hands-down beaten in everything – defence, the kicking game, attack ... we just made too many errors. We’ll have to figure out what went wrong in the next week and figure it out quickly ... I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
He admitted that what was expected to be a tight game against the All Blacks was now shaping to be an epic challenge for his team to keep things respectable: “That was probably our worst performance since 2018, when we lost to Argentina in Mendoza. Definitely not a great performance – the last time we conceded four tries in a game was against New Zealand in 2018. It’s going to be a massive challenge playing against New Zealand.
“Playing against the Sanzaar nations again has been a big eye-opener for us because you get tested differently; that’s why next week is going to be a massive challenge.”
Pollard cautioned against writing the Boks off in the downgraded blockbuster against the Kiwis on Saturday.
“We must be candid in our review of the game,” he said. “But we can’t feel sorry for ourselves for long, we must quickly reset. There’ll never be a shortage of motivation playing the All Blacks ... any test we play for the Springboks is important.
“At the moment we’re not good enough, but if you know this team well enough, we always come right when we have our backs to the wall.”