Johannesburg - Their strong second half fightback ensured that the Springboks left Yokohama Stadium still strongly believing they can win the World Cup, but their match against the All Blacks provided a strong reminder of the chief obstacle that stands in their path.
There is a lot of rugby still to be played before the Boks can start thinking of a possible return clash with New Zealand in the World Cup final, but they need to stay cognisant during the remaining Pool matches and what they hope will be two play-off matches of the need to evolve towards being a more complete team.
As Bok forward coach Matt Proudfoot reminded the media on Monday, we can be sure the All Blacks will evolve their game in the coming weeks.
“The All Blacks are constantly evolving, they are too clever not to, and what I expect is that they will add to their repertoire in the remaining Pool matches by further developing their attacking style,” said Proudfoot.
“Their game against us was a tight one, and both teams had to play tight, but now they can loosen up a bit and use the next few games to bring their attacking style through. I think we can expect them to show more set phase attack in the coming weeks.”
What Proudfoot is talking about there is adaptability. The All Blacks are capable of bringing more to their game and adopting a different strategy to what they did in Yokohama. What the All Blacks are good at, and remain the best in the world at, is finding ways to win in tough situations and playing to different strengths when it is necessary to do so.
That adaptability is one of the reasons they have the reputation of being the team that wins the big points in big games, as they did on Saturday.
Repeat of Wellington
There were many passages of play in their 23-13 win that were strongly reminiscent of the draw in Wellington before the World Cup. Just as was the case then, in Yokohama the Springboks didn’t take their opportunities during their period of domination. The All Black period of ascendancy once again coincided with the Boks giving penalties away and making other errors that Kieran Read’s team capitalised on.
According to Proudfoot, it was that aspect that most hurt the players about the Yokohama defeat.
“That was a very tough test match and the guys were really slugging it out in that period 20 minute from the end when there were just four points in it, but we were more than just physically hurt after that game,” said Proudfoot.
“The All Blacks were good but we missed opportunities and left them out there. I know this team has it in it to go all the way, and we will learn a lot from that defeat, but what hurts us most is that we see it as an opportunity missed.”
What happened in that Rugby Championship clash seven weeks ago was overlooked at the time because the Boks came back to claim a draw in exciting fashion. But the repetition should have confirmed to Erasmus again how much work is still required on addressing what has been the enduring narrative when it comes to Bok/All Black fixtures in the post-isolation era.
He will know better than anyone that much of it comes down to skill-set and that depends on a process that has to be inclusive of all the levels of the game and can’t just suddenly happen overnight. Progress has been made in the past few years. The gap in that regard has been closed a bit, just not as much as is needed.
For in the long-term it is addressing the of issue of adaptability that will make possible future consistency and even domination of the old foe more possible. Saying the Kiwis are more adaptable is another way of saying that they have more ways to win, which they showed at the weekend.
Developing beyond Plan A
Whereas the South Africans are in trouble when they have to move away from their Plan A, the All Blacks have a Plan A, B and C. Or they give the impression they do.
That’s not a criticism of Erasmus, who has done a great job of getting the Boks to where they are. That they are contenders for World Cup glory, and are still seen by so many as the likely finalists, is a tribute to how well the new coaching team has rectified a ship that was listing so badly just two years ago after that 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Albany.
There’s no question of something like that happening again. At least not while Erasmus is in charge and the Boks are on their current path. But the Yokohama Stadium defeat was a wake-up call in that it should have brought some perspective to the expectations. The Boks are good enough to challenge, and to beat the All Blacks on a given day, but they are not yet the complete team they’d need to be to be considered the overwhelming favourites some considered them to be for both the Yokohama match and for the tournament as a whole.
Boks may have won too much ball
The Boks got the anticipated physical ascendancy early on and won enough ball. In fact, Erasmus made an interesting point afterwards - perhaps they won too much ball. For it is off Bok mistakes when they do have the ball that the All Blacks tend to prosper.
So part of the immediate short-term remedy, and short-term is what we are looking at here for that is what is needed to win the World Cup, is to eliminate mistakes. But it also follows that the Boks will profit from having the ball more if they had more finesse about their handling and more precision and perhaps just a hint of the innovation that the All Blacks bring to their attacking game.
It was that innovation, made up this time in the main of the pinpoint cross kicks that opened the Boks up and negated the impact of their rush defence, that enabled New Zealand to quickly cancel out the South African dominance in a seven minutes period that would have been freaky had we not seen it so often before.
The All Blacks scored most of their points in that period so yes, the Boks are right to believe they can still win the competition and can reverse the result if they meet the All Blacks again. But we could be more comfortable about backing them to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk if they had the same kind of adaptability that the All Blacks have.
That is why Erasmus is right when he says the All Blacks are the favourites and, in his view, always have been, even before Saturday. And they will remain favourites for as long as they continue to show the game adaptability and ability to win the big moments, things that to some degree go together, that they did this past weekend and continue to make a habit of.
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