Johannesburg - If you asked any South African rugby fan what their thoughts were about the Springboks’ line-out after the defeat to Australia in last weekend’s Rugby Championship match, the likely answer would be that it was in shambles.
Said line-out had a return of 11 takes from 14 of the Boks’ throw-ins, with one of the stray throws leading to Wallabies centre Matt Toomua’s 33rd-minute try. In a game ultimately lost by five points, culpable doesn’t even begin to describe the line-out role in the defeat.
Couple that with the fact that hookers Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi and Akker van der Merwe have all on occasion mislaid their throwing GPS and – to the mind of the average fan, at least – you have a line-out that can’t be 100% trusted, despite the country teeming with world-class lock forwards – think Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Rudolph Gerhardus and Franco Mostert.
But try selling that to former Boks hooker Hanyani Shimange, who is encouraged by what he has seen. As ever with rugby types at the coalface, the Western Province forwards coach cites statistics for his buoyancy.
As things stood before yesterday’s clash against the All Blacks in Wellington, New Zealand, the Boks led the Rugby Championship after three rounds with 39 line-outs taken, while their 88% success return was joint top with New Zealand’s efforts for this year’s season.
“There’s a big difference between losing a ball 5m from your try line and the opposition scoring from that, and losing it around the 50m mark,” explained Shimange.
“All people remember is that they lost a line-out and Australia scored from that.
“Bongi had to go to the back because the scrumhalf was in the 15m line and the guys at the back should have run on to the ball. The reasons you lose a line-out are anything from the throw-in to the call, movement and timing. There’s such a lot of micro detail that goes into it.”
Shimange said the line-out was governed by tight margins: “In Super Rugby, the difference between the best and the worst line-out is about 5% to 6%. The Bulls were 94% and the worst was about 88%.”
As a self-respecting former hooker, he railed against the lazy conclusion that it was the hooker’s fault every time a line-out went astray, highlighting the aforementioned things that need to go right with each line-out, and defending Marx in the process.
“The notion that Marx struggles at line-outs doesn’t make sense because the Lions, along with the Bulls, had the best line-out in Super Rugby. Also, while he struggled in the 57-0 game against New Zealand last year, there were no problems at Newlands a few weeks later.”
If the Boks’ line-out was to be accused of anything, it would be inconsistency: “They need to play a lot more together. It’s tough at the moment, but I think they just need time. Also, if you look at [Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus’] Cheetahs days, he had them stealing balls from Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha with guys like Barend Pieterse and Corniel van Zyl.”
To make his point about time together leading to a cohesive unit, Shimange pointed to the last dominant Boks line-out under Jake White and Peter de Villiers as an example.
“Obviously, some of those guys [the Bulls’ Matfield, Botha, Danie Rossouw, Wikus van Heerden and Jacques Cronje] had played a lot together. And Victor was also a World XV lock whose line-out contesting was incredible.
“If you look at New Zealand now, they’ve got a Crusaders hooker [Codie Taylor], lock [Sam Whitelock or Scott Barrett] and captain [number eight Kieran Read], who have served them well. But the line-out has also developed a lot since we played. You’ve got specialist line-out coaches and the Irish are very creative at it.”