Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, top broadcaster TONY JOHNSON talks about the state of Springbok rugby, whether South Africa should ditch the SANZAAR alliance and previews the Pretoria Test on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How much is riding on the rematch at Loftus Versfeld?
Tony Johnson: Even though the Rugby Championship has been resolved and the All Blacks have claimed their sixth title, the rematch in Pretoria is by no means a dead-rubber. The Loftus Test has become the focal point of the All Blacks’ season so far. Regardless of what happened in the Rugby Championship, by all account the reverse fixture in Pretoria was always going to be the big one. The All Blacks don’t lose two matches in a row to an opposition team very often - the last time it happened was in 2009 - so they will be well-focused. The All Blacks missed a few opportunities to put the game away in Wellington, but all the credit has to go to the Boks. They came up with a great defensive plan in particular. I have never seen an All Black team lose so much possession over the side-line because the Springboks forced them outwide. The Boks played with an incredible spirit and determination for which they are synonymous and, for us, it has always made them the toughest team to beat. However, I don’t think the Boks will be able to get away with the sort of numbers they registered in Wellington. (The Boks had 25% possession, 21% territory and made 235 tackles to the All Blacks’ 61). As such, the Boks will have to make some changes to their Wellington strategy - they can’t go out and do the same thing again because their game plan would have been studied. The Boks have to improve their ability to get hold of the ball and can’t allow the All Blacks so much possession because on a field like Loftus, the surface really suits the way the All Blacks like to play - hard and fast. If the men in black have the lion’s share of possession in Pretoria, they will be very tough to beat. The All Blacks are constantly trying to tweak their attacking game. They have realised from past experience that if you get to the top of the game and you tread water, you will get caught.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the current state of Springbok rugby?
Tony Johnson: This time last year there was a fair bit of doom and gloom about the state of South African rugby. However, to us the Springbok is still the most dangerous beast and the most respected foe that we have. They played magnificently at Newlands last year and lost narrowly, and played superbly in Wellington and won. I like the feel of this Springbok team and, if they can get their best players on the field at the same time, the Boks are going to be a match for anyone in the game. It looks like Rassie Erasmus has got things ticking over really nicely and South Africa possess some fantastic players. When this team finds their true potential, and there were signs of them doing that in Wellington, they will be very hard to beat. I would definitely say that on their day, the Springboks are capable of beating anyone in the world and that makes them capable of winning the Rugby World Cup. It’s really great to see the Springboks in a situation where they are still one of the toughest teams in the world to beat and that’s the way it should be. The fact that the All Blacks and Springboks have been drawn in the same World Cup pool means that they won’t meet again until a potential final. In terms of the overall picture, what could be better? We haven’t had a New Zealand-South Africa Rugby World Cup final in a wee while and I can’t remember what happened last time!
Sport24 asked: Since getting into broadcasting how has the game evolved?
Tony Johnson: When I first started watching the game, there was so much aimless kicking going on and it was almost like a war of attrition. The scores in Test matches weren’t very high, but now you see the most exhilarating rugby. Tries are being scored from a long way out, which has become the norm. The speed of the modern game is incredible and the physical intensity is ferocious. The body shape of players has changed incredibly and players today are so powerful. You do wonder where it’s going to end. I think World Rugby is going to have to take some steps soon and already it’s underway. Player welfare has become a huge issue because of the physical intensity of the game. Professionalism has come with some downsides, and my two biggest worries are player welfare and the fact that the clubs in Europe want to dominate the game at the expense of international rugby. To me, Test rugby must stay at the summit and yet the club owners in England and France, for instance, can’t see that because of their own selfish determination. It’s a big ego trip for them. Within the next few years, the landscape of international rugby will undergo some major changes and hopefully the powers that be will ensure that Test rugby remains the pinnacle of the game... On a commentary front, early in my career I was very fortunate to spend some time in the company of the late, great Bill McLaren, who took me through his preparation. He had a pile of notes, but said to me: “Son, if I use half of them then I’ve used too many.” I learned it’s about what you do with the information you glean. It’s also about identifying players and learning to pronounce their names correctly. For me, in this day and age, it’s unforgivable to mispronounce the names of players. It can get complicated when you do Georgia one week and Romania the next, but it’s a challenge I really enjoy. I never lose sight of the fact that this job is a privilege, and the day that I go into a match of any sort not having that in my mind is probably the day when I’ll hand the job over to someone else.
Sport24 asked: Your take on SA potentially ditching the SANZAAR alliance?
Tony Johnson: South African rugby definitely has a foot in both camps, which puts them in a strong position. In some ways you could argue that the European set-up is better for South Africa because it’s a lucrative market and aligned with their time zone. There are some definite plusses and it would certainly eliminate the long-haul travel that takes its toll on the players. I can understand why there is a natural sense of potentially evolving towards an alliance with the northern hemisphere. However, for me, the Rugby Championship is still as good if not better than the Six Nations and why would you want to turn your back on that? I have no doubt that one of the reasons South Africa was quickly able to return to the game post-isolation was because of the constant contact with rugby in New Zealand and Australia, who were the foremost nations in the world at the time. There are obviously some negative associated with being part of an Australasian alliance, but there are also plenty of positives. In the end, sticking or twisting is a decision South African Rugby will have to make. Right now, as I see it, the negatives outweigh the positives in leaving the SANZAAR alliance.
Sport24 asked: How have you found your interactions with Steve Hansen?
Tony Johnson: He is a very interesting character and has done a really good job. He can be feisty with the media, but it’s also possible to have a good working relationship with him. By and large, I have always enjoyed interacting with him. The chance to see people away from the public front and white-hot cauldron of the game is one of the perks of my job and it can give you a fascinating insight. Steve is an interesting bloke because he never stands still and is constantly looking to improve things. Whether or not he steps down, largely depends on how the All Blacks fare at the 2019 World Cup. If the All Blacks were able to win, it would be very hard for anyone to challenge Hansen for the job. There had been some thought that he would step down after the World Cup and then it became a thought that maybe he would stay on for another year and prepare the All Blacks for a coaching change-over. We have some very good candidates if Hansen decides to step down. Joe Schmidt has done well with Ireland and there are many people who think he would make a great All Black coach. However, the All Blacks have their own succession planning. Ian Foster has been part of the system for some time now, like Hansen was under Graham Henry. Historically, that has worked really well for the All Blacks because you carry on the evolution of the team with someone who is extremely aware of all the detail, nuances and personalities involved. My suspicion is that Hansen will want to carry on in the job and, if not, there is some thought that he might become some sort of director of rugby. It’s a whole different ball game and something we have never really had in New Zealand. It would be quite a step, and whether a completely new coach would be comfortable with that is a fascinating scenario that might unfold at a later stage. At the moment, my gut feeling is that as long as the All Blacks do reasonably well at the next World Cup, Hansen will look to continue. (Since New Zealand won the 2015 World Cup with Hansen at the helm, the Springboks have had three coaches). The key to it is that New Zealand had a successful model from which to work. However, if you keep changing your coaches, you can’t build continuity. It’s a big thing for a coach, while in charge, to groom his successor and it takes people of quality to do that. I have no doubt that Erasmus, who doubles as director of rugby, will absolutely be capable of grooming someone to be his successor as Springbok coach, so he can step back into the director of rugby role on a full-time basis in the future.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the 97th meeting between the teams?
Tony Johnson: The first Test match I ever listened to on the wireless in the middle of the night was in 1970 and the All Blacks got absolutely smoked by the Springboks at Loftus. I have never been able to shake that. It was a very good All Black team that got hit like a ton of bricks. (In the professional era, however, the All Blacks have won all four fixtures at Loftus. They have scored 17 tries, conceded 9 and the average winning margin is 41-22). There will be a determination from the All Blacks to turn the tables after Wellington. However, that will not win the Test for them. It’s their execution that will. They don’t rely so much on motivation and getting fired up. In terms of the Springboks, they have to win the physical battle and gain ascendancy on the advantage line. They also can’t afford to kick the ball back to the All Blacks because, in those playing conditions, their counter-attack will prove dangerous. The Boks have to be very careful what they do with the ball and it will come down to their ability to defend well. If they can frustrate the All Blacks, little errors may come into play and they can cash in on them. However, they simply cannot expect to win the Test with 25% ball possession - it’s just not going to happen again. I will be watching the Test with my leg heavily bandaged post-knee operation and will be sipping on a nice cup of Rooibos tea. In spite of the fact that the All Blacks are not completely at full strength at the moment, I will still pick them for the win.