Johannesburg - It was telling that Springbok coach Allister Coetzee batted away a question on the All Blacks big performance in beating Australia after his own team came back from the dead to beat Argentina in Saturday’s Rugby Championship match in Nelspruit.
According to the SuperSport website, these sort of questions are the norm in the competition, and usually the coaches pay compliments and don’t write the losers off, especially as they have to play both sides in a few weeks’ time.
But Coetzee didn’t even answer the question, giving a blunt assessment of his own situation in telling journalists “we’ve got things to sort out” and that he would get to facing the Antipodean rivals closer to their clashes in a few weeks.
“We are playing in Salta next week and the focus is on Argentina, and in September we go down under and we will have enough time to look at Australia and New Zealand,” Coetzee said.
“I think we have things to sort out, to be honest, and we are really serious in getting that right. I just saw the score, because we were busy with our team meetings.”
It would be naïve to think that Coetzee and co didn’t take notice of the ease the All Blacks put pressure on the Australians and how they scored off their mistakes, but having watched his own team score 17 points in nine minutes to avoid embarrassment at home he certainly wasn’t going to take the bait.
The Boks know all too well that in a few weeks’ time they will face Brisbane and Christchurch and both will be significantly tougher than playing in front of a home crowd in Nelspruit.
Before that this week they will enter the hostile environment of Salta, which promises to be uncompromising and playing with a French referee in Jerome Garces - who they have received little favour from before - their work will be cut out for them to win the return fixture.
One thing that is easier to fathom, is where the Boks need to fix at the moment - with much of their problems coming in two areas – the breakdown and decision-making on the field.
It is clear the team want to show enterprise and play a more expansive game, but handling errors and decision-making on attack stunted whatever momentum they did manage to build up.
And at the breakdown they came second best, with the Argentinean loose trio slowing down the ball they desperately wanted to attack from.
The balance in the loose trio is particularly of concern, and while Oupa Mohoje was clearly the best forward in the team, it is clear the Boks are a far way from where they need to be in terms of securing their ball, and will have their work cut out in Argentina if the referee is as loose with the laws as Glen Jackson was.
But the Boks did get enough ball, it was simply what they did with it that is the next concern, as they never seemed to get over the gainline with too much ease, and made poor decisions when they had good attacking opportunities.
Coetzee knows this, and especially how much pressure is now on Elton Jantjies to show the type of form he produced for the Lions. While Faf de Klerk has clearly taken to Test rugby and has possibly the biggest heart on the field of all the Boks, Jantjies is too inconsistent at the moment and as much as he attacks well, his game control is severely lacking at this level at the moment.
Many of the Boks problems were their own doing, and Coetzee is well aware that the inexperienced backline is struggling against some tough opposition.
“We definitely make a lot of mistakes in that regard, and that is not an easy thing. Our decision-making is never easy and even adults don’t get decision-making right at times, let alone with pressure,” Coetzee said.
“Even without pressure we don’t get it right. That will come and you can’t on one hand say yes - and you guys write how important running rugby is and then you want something different.
“It is important that we’ve got a philosophy of balance and pressure, and we will learn that. They will get that, sometimes it is not the decision-making, sometimes it is the execution of the kick and sometimes it is the chase.
“And we saw all three tonight, when there was a good kick there was no chase, when it was the right decision there was no execution in the kick.
“But it will come and it will take time. The more they make mistakes the more they learn.”
Coetzee is putting a brave face on, but even he must be frustrated with how the Boks make life difficult for themselves at times. And much of it starts at the breakdown.
The coach was happy though with the start, but after scoring early and fluffing two clear try-scoring chances, Argentina took control. And ahead of Salta that is a massive concern.
“That’s what we need to put together for longer periods. I’m happy with that. It probably looked easy in the first 10 minutes, and eventually not respecting the ball and mistakes made, penalties conceded and then you start backpedalling and that killer instinct is not there. We will have to have a look at it and see where did it go wrong,” Coetzee added.
“We need to create a good platform for Faf at breakdown time, because of the slow ball -he had to dig for ball tonight and that shouldn’t be the case. That slowed the ball down and gave Argentina the opportunity to get their defensive structure right and put pressure on the halfbacks. That’s Faf’s way of playing, he needs quick ball. Our ball carriers could have done more in ball in hand, in evasion, with ball in hand, to get quick ball for Faf. It didn’t happen.
“With quick ball Faf would be even more dangerous.”
How you fix these truths in a week with a lot of travel is a big ask. But as much as the public need to be patient, the Boks need to show they are moving forward as a side.
And as unforgiving a place as Salta is for them to do that this week, they will know if they think this is pressure, then they shouldn’t even think of Christchurch.