Cape Town - The superior assuredness and accuracy off the kicking tee of Handre Pollard over Beauden Barrett … adding in the lurking Frans Steyn “long-range bomber” factor.
That looks increasingly feasibly to prove a key game-tilter in South Africa’s next gigantic clash with New Zealand, at Yokohama on September 21 in the early pool phase of the World Cup.
Just over a year ago, it would have been understandable for many observers - in either country - to scoff at the notion that place-kicking proficiency might be the pivotal factor in determining the scoreboard situation upon final whistle between these foes.
Up to that point, the All Blacks had gone through an extended period of very noticeable mastery over their time-honoured fierce rivals - to the extent that points achieved off the tee often had desperately little relevance.
Particularly during the two-year era preceding Rassie Erasmus’s grabbing of the head-coach reins for the 2018 season onward, the New Zealanders earned some depressingly commanding, try-laden triumphs.
Between 2016 and 2017, the All Blacks won all four meetings, including 41-13 in Christchurch, 57-15 in Durban and 57-0 at North Harbour.
But in the three subsequent match-ups, all under Erasmus’s SA charge, there have been two tussles settled either way by two points, followed by Saturday’s 16-16 latest nail-biter.
Overall points amassed in that time? NZ 82 SA 82 ... yes, it’s been precisely that even.
What’s more, in each of the two away fixtures for the Boks - both in Wellington, and now featuring a victory and a draw - flyhalf Pollard having the edge in goal-kicking efficiency over Barrett, the latter much more renowned for his wickedly fleet-footed artistry in open play, has been a major scoreboard influence.
Whereas the South African, in the latest encounter, landed four of five shots at the posts (80 percent success rate, a figure he is quite used to meeting or eclipsing at all levels of the game), his NZ rival, playing out of customary position at fullback, got two from four (50 percent), including botching two kickable penalties.
The All Black pivot on the day, their well less Test-experienced Richie Mo’unga, eventually took over duties and added two further penalty strikes off his own boot in the stalemate.
In last season’s much more high-scoring Cake Tin scrap, Pollard’s altogether more clockwork kicking off the tee (five out of six, or 83.33 percent) was again a massive factor in the famous 36-34 outcome in Bok favour, as Barrett subsided to a flaky two from six (33.33 percent).
That the Boks have redeveloped a heartening trend over the past year or so of (at very least) running the world champions extremely close in Tests, puts a fresh spotlight on the importance of landing every kickable opportunity that comes along in bilateral, down-to-the-wire tussles.
Globetrotting South African kicking specialist Vlok Cilliers, a dual former SA Sevens and Bok player, suggested after last year’s Wellington epic that Barrett has a “poor technique” off the tee, and he has not changed his views after Saturday’s more recent encounter there.
“Handre looked totally more confident in his place-kicking body language (last weekend) and it showed in his results on the day,” Cilliers told Sport24 on Tuesday.
What’s more, when faced with a nerve-jangling conversion to clinch the draw after the siren - some domestic attention has been drawn to the fact that he took it from wider than was probably needed - Pollard, in another feather in his cap for confidence in high-pressure situations, didn’t fail either the mental or practical test.
“He’s absolutely nailed it,” was the entirely apt appraisal of veteran SuperSport lead commentator Matthew Pearce as Springbok colleagues ran from near and far to wildly celebrate his crucial strike.
But there is another reason to believe, if the RWC clash in Yokohama is once again determined by the narrowest of margins, that the Boks could hold the aces in the event of tee accuracy being the difference.
It is the gradual re-emergence in Test colours this year, after some lengthy international absences, of utility back Frans Steyn.
The now 32-year-old had landed some important, notably long-range goals early in the Tri-Nations-deciding encounter at Hamilton in 2009 (SA edged it 32-29) and he offers something no current All Black is especially renowned for: the ability to bang the ball over the crossbar from 55-60 metres or occasionally even more.
That natural power off the tee hasn’t diminished with the passage of time for the Montpellier-based customer.
The assuring alliance of Pollard as established, first-choice kicker from closer ranges and Steyn as a possible game-breaker from extraordinary distance?
It’s a good one for South Africa to carry into RWC 2019, even if they will need all the other aspects of their battleplan to be highly polished as well ...
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