Boks have ‘start the engine’ issue

Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The Springboks still struggling with the ignition, while their opponents accelerate across the intersection.

To use a traffic-related analogy, that is a strange problem the national side seem to have experienced quite regularly so far in the 2018 Test season.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus’s win record from six outings in charge now stands at an unremarkable 50 percent - and the Boks often falling behind early in matches has probably been a notable impediment to a better status than that.

They have lagged on the scoreboard at halftime in each of their last three Tests – Argentina in both Durban and Mendoza, England in Cape Town – which goes some way to explaining why only the Kings Park game, of that trio, led to a Bok victory.

South Africa have trailed at the break in four of their six matches in total, and bear in mind that even in one instance where they did hold the upper hand on the scoreboard at the break (the breathless first Test against the English in Johannesburg) they had had to come from 3-24 down to grab a 29-27 advantage entering the “shed”.

So there is a definite pattern of the Boks being dangerously slow starters, something Michael Cheika and the rest of the Australian brains trust will no doubt have made a mental note of ahead of the Rugby Championship clash at Brisbane on Saturday week.

It is a game Erasmus has already branded a “win at all costs” one for his charges bearing in mind the slightly unexpected setback in Mendoza.

The Boks have scored only 65 of their 148 points across the six Tests so far in the first half, meaning 43 percent, and eight of their 19 tries (42 percent).

Only in one Test, that game in the “Big Smoke” against England, have South Africa scored more tries in the first period than second.

But now for the plus side, if you want to take an upbeat view of their short- to medium-term prospects as Erasmus continues to bed down gradually to his difficult job: the Boks have effectively won the second half, points-wise, in as many as five of those six Tests.

That was even the case in Mendoza, where they trailed by a nasty margin of 27-7 at the interval and then leaked another try (32-7) in the 46th minute.

Things appeared set for a particularly embarrassing final outcome at that juncture, but instead the Boks did claw back gutsily to eventually edge the second-half scoring rights 12-5 in a 32-19 reverse.

The only exception to Bok second-half points dominance was the dead-rubber third Test against England in filthy weather at Newlands in late June, where they trailed 6-3 at halftime and were comfortably beaten 25-10 anyway.

Trying to explain the Bok tendency toward sluggishness early on in matches is hard to do. You might not get a suitable answer out of Erasmus or his lieutenants, either: they hardly “coach” their charges to leak points quickly, you can be fairly sure.

But a couple of positive observations can arguably be made around the regular habit of Siya Kolisi and company of bossing second halves.

One is that it seems a decent indicator that, despite the inevitable variety of teething difficulties under a new coach, an agreeable amount of “gees” clearly runs through the ranks.

You can’t, as they say, buy that in a can at the corner store.

Another is that Springbok conditioning cannot be the worst thing in the world, even if Erasmus may have intentions for still loftier levels yet on that front …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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