After the euphoria of the first two tests in June against England, the Springboks have been knocked back down to earth with a defeat to the same opposition, a workman like victory in Durban over Argentina and a humbling at the hands of the Pumas in Mendoza last weekend.
No one can argue that there isn’t a better feeling in this squad than in previous ones under the likes of Alistair Coetzee and Pieter De Villiers but the initial honeymoon period is well and truly over and there are some obvious shortcomings that need addressing.
From an attacking perspective they look very dangerous indeed. Blooding young players such as Aphiwe Dyanti and S’busiso N’Kosi has been a huge tick in the box for Rassie Erasmus as they have shown a fearlessness in offence and look as though they could score at any time. Sometimes the execution has left a bit to be desired but they were creating so many opportunities in June that there were enough sticking to keep the score board ticking over.
Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux have also been a positive inclusion into this squad. De Klerk put in one of the great scrum-half performances of modern times against England in the first test and Le Roux’s ability to come in at first receiver to create chances has, at times, helped an attack left stagnant from Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies play.
Defensively they have looked very suspect though having conceded 14 tries in 5 matches so far which is far too many for a tier one nation to truly compete at the highest level. That may not sound like a massive amount but 4 of those matches were at home meaning they conceded 11 in 4 on their own turf.
To put that into perspective, England finished 5th in the Six Nations last year yet only conceded 9 tries in 5 matches. Ireland, Grand Slam Champions, conceded 11 as did Wales, Scotland 14 and France only conceded 6. Only Italy conceded more than 14 in the Championship but if I started comparing South Africa with Italy then I would be wide of the mark and would be making an unfair point.
If we take the last match against Argentina as a case in point for some of these shortcomings then I will let the stats do the talking. In nearly every single major statistical department the Springboks were better.
Possession, territory, metres gained, offloads, penalties conceded, lineout success; all in the black. The only one in the red was handling errors in which they made one more than the opposition but when you have 67% of possession then that’s excusable.
So how on earth did they not win?
Firstly, they were not ruthless enough when on attack. They started well with people funnelling through gaps and carrying hard. Siya Kolisi was one of those players that started well but as the going got tougher and the breakdown ball slowed down these players, Kolisi included, seemed to fade into the back ground.
There is no point in looking at the tackle success because they don’t reflect the game and how South Africa defended. You can’t miss a tackle if you are no where near the ball carrier in the first place and the Argentinian attack had plenty of room to capitalise with the limited ball that they did have.
Nicola Sanchez had an arm chair ride from 10 as he glided through gaps or put others through them instead.
Simply put, when Argentina entered the 22 they came away with points but the men in Green and Gold didn’t.
Things are about to get more difficult for them now as they travel east to Australasia to play the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
Many of the Bok players have returned to their clubs in Europe this weekend. Francois Louw for instance has been picked to come off the bench for Bath in their match with Bristol on Friday night. Le Roux and De Klerk may follow suit for Wasps and Sale respectively. That means they will have travelled from Durban to Mendoza, to the U.K., played three matches and then travelled to Australia in the space of just over two weeks.
It’s just not sustainable and that is why I believe the push for South African domestic and international rugby to be played in the Northern Hemisphere on a more permanent basis will gather pace very soon. It certainly should be on the hierarchies to do list.
Player availability and a global rugby calendar should be at the top of the Springbok hierarchies to do list however. They are in the middle of a major championship and as it stands they don’t know which players they will be able to pick for the next few matches. Their European based players need permission to play from their clubs.
Todd Balckadder, Head Coach of Bath Rugby, has said that they are working with the Springboks to work out Louw’s availability.
“I think we’re going to be working with South Africa. It’s just going to be a game by game basis,” said Blackadder.
“Initially, it’s about Francois just playing the first four games for South Africa and then being back, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
If the likes of Le Roux, De Klerk and Louw suddenly have to drop out of the squad against New Zealand and Australia at home then that could well leave the Springboks in the Lions den with no escape route. Erasmus is using them as the backbone of his team and with more players like Franco Mostert also heading to the Gallagher Premiership this season then how can consistency be conceivably achieved?
Duane Vermeulen was the player of the series against England and has said he may or may not be able to play at some point. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to play as he has a contract in Japan until he joins the Bulls for the next Super Rugby season. Losing players of this calibre is making Erasmus’ life very tricky indeed.
You can spin it anyway you want with regards to building for the World Cup but that’s not what the fans want or need to hear. It’s certainly not the attitude that the great South African rugby teams of the past have been built on.
The next chapter of the former Munster coaches’ era in charge will be extremely difficult and to a certain degree the most important game of this tour will be the Australia one. It is a must win and I don’t think that any team in the world right now should be judged on what happens against New Zealand, just ask Michael Cheika.
A loss to Australia could well be the start of a deep-rooted rot so Erasmus needs all of his big guns to fire on every available cylinder.
A win will certainly be a huge step mentally for a team that has struggled to travel in recent years. 2013 is the last time they beat Australia on foreign soil and you must go back to 2009 for their last one in New Zealand.
These next two matches will be pivotal as to where the Springboks are heading but the next game, in Australia, will be the best gauge.