Cape Town – Lamentably floundering in deep mud, with rescue clearly a long way from arrival.
It was impossible not to draw that conclusion about Springbok rugby as the national team slumped to a mistake-littered 23-18 Rugby Championship reverse to only marginally less inept Australia in Brisbane on Saturday.
For coach Rassie Erasmus – his captain Siya Kolisi should increasingly be under the microscope too – this was a serious setback considering his “must win” statement ahead of the meeting at a seemingly half-empty Suncorp Stadium and the controversy generated by his half-dozen changes to the starting line-up for the Test.
The Boks have now won only three of seven matches in 2018, a 42.85 percent record, including setbacks in three of their last four Tests.
Just in terms of the standard of the performance, marked by some consistently awful, unforced gaffes and rank amateurish decision-making, it is almost futile to make the point that South Africa should have done enough in a reasonably purposeful first half to put the game to bed.
But they lost their grip (and composure) at vital times before the break to let the Wallabies back into the picture, a once commanding 15-7 advantage being whittled down to 18-17 as the teams headed down the tunnel.
That was all the ammunition the home side – remember, stripped of three key figures a day or two beforehand – needed to believe they could winkle this one out, and they duly turned the screws suitably to prevail.
The Boks are thus in some disarray as they head to Wellington for next Saturday’s clash with now runaway tournament leaders the All Blacks.
Expect some fallout, too, from Erasmus’s humiliating decision to haul hooker Bongi Mbonambi off (seemingly uninjured) as early as the 35th minute for Malcolm Marx - who brought no special improvement to a frustratingly fallible lineout.
Here’s how I rated the Boks in Brisbane:
Willie le Roux: 4
A brilliant feature of their last win in Australia at the same venue in 2013, Le Roux failed lamentably to revisit those highs here. One chip he made on attack went straight into touch, and two knock-ons under little pressure thwarted promising enough Bok raids. Seasoned campaigner must take his share of blame for bad exit play by SA, as well.
Makazole Mapimpi: 6
The right wing was looking zestful … before falling prey to first-half injury for a second Test in a row. But in his 33 minutes he had engineered a turnover and also notched a corner-flag try with sound body positioning from Faf de Klerk’s skip pass.
Jesse Kriel: 5.5
Kriel probably didn’t do enough to suggest the instability at outside centre has been solved, but he was nothing if not tenacious, including a gutsy defensive intervention in the corner. Botched one chip kick from his own quarter.
Damian de Allende: 6.5
Solid game, pretty much throughout, even if opportunities to get into fifth gear were few and far between for him. Constructive in limited space, and made firm tackles. Lost the ball once in a “bust-in” move near the Aussie tryline.
Aphiwe Dyantyi: 5
Spent quite a bit of time catching the proverbial cold, as attacking chances seldom arose for the livewire left wing. Badly messed up one high-ball collection.
Elton Jantjies: 5.5
The big plus for the enigmatic No 10 was that he largely cut out personal errors in this match. Also kicked all three of his goals. No special X-factor in his key slot, though, and some dinks in promising positions didn’t come off; he was also overhasty once with a relieving penalty kick that gained very limited distance into touch.
Faf de Klerk: 3.5
Because he is such a natural “eager beaver”, he will always do some good things – like the long pass that teed up Mapimpi’s try. But De Klerk was also one of the most glaring culprits for errors. These included an ill-judged kick leading to an early Wallaby try, some knock-ons, an off-side lapse and a high tackle. Can’t someone just calm him down at times?
Warren Whiteley: 5.5
I felt his busy, willing first half was one of his best 40-minute spells in recent times. It included some gritty last-ditch defending. But then he seemed to lose some lustre and was yanked off around the hour mark.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 5.5
Physically up for it, as ever. Pitched up convincingly in pressure situations, and one rib-crunching tackle on Matt Toomua. Once or twice exposed in the pace department as stealthier Aussie ball-carriers would elude his grasp.
Siya Kolisi: 5
Keeping up his far from ideal hallmark of getting fulsomely involved in bursts … then going anonymous again. Should have reacted quicker when Boks botched a long lineout throw to leak a silly try. Some fine bust-outs and carries, but also no special impact as a fetcher, and seemed to irk referee Glen Jackson in the closing stages.
Franco Mostert: 5
Some honest input, but that’s not new from him, and debate may also re-open about whether Boks require a slightly beefier specimen in the No 5 shirt.
Eben Etzebeth: 6.5
Infinitely better than in Mendoza, where the big enforcer was subbed in the 47th minute – very early for him. Put in a robust hour here, playing major role in general Bok forward supremacy (both set-piece and tight-loose) in the first half. Plenty of tackles, and kick-off receipts sound.
Frans Malherbe: 6.5
As with Etzebeth, lifted his game enormously from the loss in Argentina. Lost a ball forward in contact early on, but then got stuck in at the coalface. Scrummed well, and was well-placed to make some vital tackles, too, near the Bok line.
Bongi Mbonambi: 6
The hooker was having a fine outing until shortly before halftime, including controlling Bok mauls astutely and dotting a well-earned try from one of them. But then his unfathomable long throw in a defensive-lineout situation (albeit that someone else probably called it?) surrendered a gift seven-pointer … and he was highly debatably substituted ahead of the break. It didn’t seem like best man-management.
Steven Kitshoff: 6
Hmm, mixed bag … as with several colleagues. Serious handful as Boks earned some widespread forward traction in first half, including two cheeky wins at front of lineout. But he began to become too penalty-prone and an untimely knock-on didn’t help.
Francois Louw: 5.5
All the talk of an unusually heavyweight Bok bench really amounted to little: few subs truly shone, though at least the veteran Louw tried near-ceaselessly to get his hands and knees dirty in the closing 18 minutes.
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