Boks' pool-stage review: Their pros, cons

Cheslin Kolbe (AFP)
Cheslin Kolbe (AFP)

Cape Town - While they are massively likely to end it in second place, being eclipsed at the death by New Zealand if the defending champions beat Italy as fully expected on Saturday, it was largely “job efficiently done” by the Springboks in their now wrapped-up Pool B phase at the 2019 World Cup.

Here is my assessment of their group showing, and how well it sets them up for the all-important knockout phase:


1. Steady building of form, confidence

Beaten right up front in the much-touted opener against the All Blacks despite good opportunities to have won it, the Boks put the result behind them quickly enough to breeze through the remaining games against Namibia (57-3), Italy (49-3) and Canada (66-7).

In doing so, they exhibited plenty of polish, passion and intent along the way, while always leaving the impression - not the worst thing, entering knockout play where you need a step-up anyway? - that perfection was still elusive.

But that trio of matches did allow them to fine-tune a few aspects of their play, try out some new tactics at times and, just as importantly, give virtually everyone in the squad a sense of form and mental sharpness and a healthy “we’re all in this together” ethic.

2. Rosy depth … especially in the pack

Coach Rassie Erasmus’s “dirt-trackers” came strongly to the selection forefront - as had always been his stated plan - in the victories over Namibia and Canada.

Simultaneously, they largely confirmed that the Boks have most bases extremely soundly covered in the event of injury or other disruption to mainline plans.

It was especially apparent in the near-embarrassment of riches South Africa have in forward resources: probably their best overall collection of engine-roomers in all seven RWCs they’ve taken part in.

Taking no chances about the possibility of a competitive forward battle against Italy (something that only became a damp squib from the outgunned Azzurri, really), Erasmus went for a 6-2 split in favour of pack men on that occasion: it simply illustrated even better that there is just no SA let-up in excellence when you unleash, for instance, a Marx for an Mbonambi, a Kitshoff for a Mtawarira, a Snyman for an Etzebeth … the list goes just on.

3. Strong statistics

The Boks amassed 185 points in pool play and only conceded 36: so the differential is “plus-149” … 14 better than arch-rivals NZ as things stand, although the All Blacks will be heavily tipped to nip back to supremacy in their closing match against the Italians.

Similarly, the current, tournament-topping Bok try ratio of 27 for and three against, overshadows the NZ figure of 22-1 though, again, the cup-holders should perk up their figure substantially against the limited Azzurri.

South Africa’s victory over Canada was their biggest yet from three bilateral encounters, and the result against Italy achieved by the widest margin against that nation in 10 tussles since an identical 46-point margin in Port Elizabeth in 2001.

4. Sound conditioning, low injury toll

While some concerns are being expressed, for example, about the various Six Nations teams’ ability to adapt to the unusual levels of humidity in Japan so far, there have generally been no such problems for the Boks.

Early arrivals in the country, and then with the advantage of playing the host nation themselves in the immediate lead-up, Erasmus’s charges have looked increasingly comfortable in the sticky conditions and their handling improving to the same degree.

The Boks are also in a healthy space when it comes to injuries: the relative lack of them.

While it was unfortunate to lose two influential squad members in the in-form tighthead prop Trevor Nyakane and midfielder Jesse Kriel (leaving the Boks low on specialist outside centres) during the pool stage, there was good immediate cover, and both Thomas du Toit and Damian Willemse were popular emergency additions.

5. The Cheslin factor

While he picked up an ankle problem late in the Italian clash, right wing dynamo Cheslin Kolbe - quite unquestionably one of the players of the World Cup to this point - seems raring to go for the knockouts.

And thank goodness for that: his amazing levels of skill and enterprise to go with that massive “ticker” in a modest frame have lit up the event and clearly rubbed off favourably on many team-mates.

While last year had seen him deliver some signals of what lay ahead from him at the game’s loftiest level, the Kraaifontein-born, twinkle-toed competitor has hugely wowed in virtually all of his five Bok starts in 2019 (five tries along the way) … and very much including the World Cup clashes with NZ and Italy.

Kolbe makes things happen from the seemingly most innocuous of situations, and from virtually anywhere on the park, too: he will be a key weapon in the knockouts amidst a broader Bok backline still containing a few deficiencies elsewhere.


1. Probably still the trickier quarter-final route

As things stood, Ireland (just with Samoa left to play) remained likeliest, by my book, in Pool A to top the incredibly tense group … despite the stirring showing of Japan, facing a titanic “eliminator” against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday.

That would mean the Boks being punished, if that is the right expression, for their almost certain second-place finish in Pool B by facing the Irish in a quarter-final.

It could very feasibly still be Japan instead, of course, if they knock over the Scots to unexpectedly claim first place, though the last-named side are building a timely head of steam, and not yet lost in seven prior encounters with the Brave Blossoms.

I am not remotely seduced by the talk that “perhaps Ireland would be better now anyway” for the Boks. To a man, I am sure they’d still prefer to tackle the Japanese. Yes, passionate home advantage, eye-catching team spirit and all …

2. Attack limitations from set play

Much about the Boks has been effervescent and constructive, even while their tried and trusted habits - like a strong set-piece, polished rolling maul and natural relish for the collisional aspects – have powered them pleasingly as well.

They are also striking to lethal effect at times in broken play or from long range, aided by the pace and guile of the likes of Kolbe and prolific-scoring Makazole Mapimpi.

But if there is one major question mark still over these Boks, it is the over-reliance at times on box kicking off nine, and a lingering lack of fluidity or conviction in backline attack off structured play.

The Boks have irksomely butchered several clear-cut try-scoring opportunities at this tournament, even when overlaps of the three-on-one kind have presented themselves.

Could that come home to roost somehow in a ding-dong, KO clash?

3. The Etzebeth controversy

This bubbles and bubbles … an obvious distraction (even if they might try to spin a denying view) that they simply don’t need while so much else is going quite swimmingly.

The events of that rowdy night in Langebaan, including alleged racial slurs by the big lock meanie and his mates, have turned into a political hot potato back home, with widespread calls for Etzebeth’s summoning home from the tournament … even as an also well-stocked lobby reminds of the “innocent until proved guilty” principle.

From one day to another, the Boks can’t be truly sure that their second most experienced squad member (and a sometimes captain) behind Tendai Mtawarira in caps terms will remain part of their ranks in Japan.

Still, the instability on that front is offset to some degree by just how rousingly the likely next in line to the first-team No 4 shirt, RG Snyman, has been performing.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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