Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-All Black scrumhalf MARK ROBINSON talks about why Springbok rugby is on the rise, James Small’s legacy and who he is tipping ahead of the Wellington Test on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Springbok rugby?
Mark Robinson: I watched the South Africa versus Australia Test match on TV here in the Isle of Man and I’m excited for what is coming out of South African rugby. After losing to Australia in 2018, one year later it seems like a completely different team in terms of the camaraderie and playing pattern. I felt the Springboks were too one-dimensional on attack last year but, judging by the Wallaby game, they are moving the ball well. They possess some great backs and there is speed and firepower out wide. The Springboks have an edge about them now which I hadn’t seen for a while, and I’m quite excited about it. The Boks are playing wider and they are mixing up their attack. As a consequence, they are not predictable like Springbok teams played in the past. They seem to be relishing their rugby and that is when players play for each other. I’m looking forward to seeing the different batch of players playing this weekend in Wellington. There are young players coming through. In particular, Herschel Jantjies, who is a bit of a star and is set to come off the bench in the second half. To score two tries on debut against Australia was phenomenal. However, he is in competition with Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, who have been absolutely outstanding playing in the Gallagher Premiership. Meanwhile, from a leadership point of view, injured captain Siya Kolisi, who is set to return in time for the World Cup, seems to be such a great leader and well-respected team member.
Sport24 asked: Are the All Blacks underdogs heading into the fixture?
Mark Robinson: When we last spoke ahead of the clash in Wellington in 2018, I remember I was quite convinced that the All Blacks would easily beat the Springboks at the Westpac Stadium. I’m going to change tack this time and say that South Africa are definitely the front-runners. I think almost everyone in New Zealand is expecting the All Blacks to go in as underdogs. The Springboks have been touted as favourites and rightly so. The All Blacks looked very average against Argentina in round one of the abbreviated Rugby Championship. They were laborious in terms of some of their plays and their backline attack was very fractured a lot of the time. However, as we know with every All Black side, after a sub-par performance one week they tend to fix it and right the wrongs the following week. The Springboks shouldn’t expect their hosts to lie down and for it to be an easy run… The one thing I am excited about is the Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett 10-15 axis. I think it could be the start of a bit of a master plan from Steve Hansen in terms of his thought process. Mo’unga’s goal-kicking was in the high 80 percent range in Super Rugby. He is a more consistent goal-kicker than Barrett and has shown maturity in Super Rugby and with the All Blacks over the last three seasons. He has been blooded into the All Black environment really well and has earned the respect of his peers and grown the confidence, so that he can drive and direct the team from flyhalf.
Sport24 asked: What are your feelings about James Small’s sudden death?
Mark Robinson: His passing is really sad and I was shocked by the news. His sudden death shows that life is very precious and can be taken away from you very quickly no matter what age you are. What was also sad for me was reading the media exposing the alleged details of his death. He was a South African rugby legend who achieved so much and I feel heartbroken for his family. I also have two kids and I would hate to think if they were to lose their father no matter at what age… I only got to play against James very briefly when I first came onto the Super Rugby scene in 1997 and what a fantastic player he was. I remember him and Joost van der Westhuizen as typical South African rugby players who were hardnosed. They were such skilful, aggressive players who never took a step back. James turned New Zealand’s biggest strength - in the form of Jonah Lomu - into their biggest weakness in the 1995 World Cup final. As Small, imagine going into that final knowing that you are marking Lomu and you are half the size of him. Lomu had absolutely dominated the World Cup tournament up to that point and then Small closed him down and he never scored when he touched the ball. Small didn’t afford Lomu any space and then New Zealand didn’t really have a Plan B. The fact that Small helped take away New Zealand’s biggest weapon is something to forever be proud of.
Sport24 asked: What type of game can we expect at the Westpac Stadium?
Mark Robinson: Wellington is a difficult place to play. It hasn’t got the same atmosphere as some other stadiums and it’s not the best place to play a Test if I’m being honest. It’s probably going to be wet and windy at the Cake Tin on Saturday and, as such, I expect it to be a tactical game. The All Blacks will try to move the Springbok pack around, play at pace and identify space. The South African wingers’ attacking ability is fantastic, so the All Blacks don’t want to give them too much space. They can cut through any backline if afforded space. Tactically, the hosts will put a lot of pressure on defence and will try to shut down any real attack before it’s even started from the Springbok runners. From a South African perspective, I definitely expect the Boks to continue with their kicking game against the All Blacks. A really interesting statistic is teams that kick the ball the most generally win. It’s not always about holding onto the ball. It’s about possession, territory and about applying pressure. De Klerk has a fantastic box-kicking game and Handré Pollard boasts a great tactical kicking strategy, so I definitely foresee the Boks kicking. But the kicking must be done to put the pressure on the All Blacks and keep them in their half and they must back their defence, which showed great resilience against Australia last week. And, when they get the ball in hand, they must play some rugby… In terms of righting wrongs, I reckon New Zealand will be solely focused on beating South Africa and showing that their combinations work. I don’t think revenge from last year will be on the All Blacks’ radar and they will just want to do better than they did last week. The men in black will also want to ensure they get through with as few injuries as possible and a win to boot. It’s going to be close, but I’m backing the Springboks. I’m happy to predict a Bok win because last time I backed the All Blacks and they lost, so it’s maybe a bit of reverse psychology. But the Boks are in the running to win the Rugby Championship and, if they beat the All Blacks on Saturday, it’s theirs to lose.
Sport24 asked: Are you pleased with Nic Berry’s appointment as referee?
Mark Robinson: I like Nic as referee for the 98th Test between the All Blacks and Springboks. As a former player, I think he reads the game very well and he wants it to be free flowing. Both teams will kick a lot in Wellington, but will also want to play rugby because they are trying different things. Mo’unga is an attacking player and so too is his opposite number, Pollard. You have also got halfbacks in De Klerk and TJ Perenara who will look to speed up the game as much as possible. I think Berry is a great referee who lets the game breathe unlike some other match officials in the game today. I will say this very candidly; he’s not like French referees who always love to blow the whistle and stamp their authority on the game when they should rather let it develop a natural flow.