There is a renewed vigour around Springbok Rugby now that Rassie Erasmus has waved his magic wand and reconnected the team with the fans but should they leave the Northern Hemisphere on Sunday morning having only won two out of four matches then their series will have to be regarded as a failure.
The men in green have had to fight with English domestic club politics and injuries to key men on the tour but they have continued to play aesthetically pleasing rugby whilst finding some strength in depth along the way.
Faf de Klerk’s absence has given Embrose Papier the chance to play at scrum-half for his country at the age of 21 and his performance last week against Scotland shows that South Africa’s Achilles heel position for so many recent years has now been fixed and strengthened. You can also add in Ivan van Zyl who is only 23 himself whilst De Klerk, at 27, still has many years in front of him as well.
Handré Pollard has rectified some of his kicking jitters of the past and marshals the team around the pitch with a re-found swagger. The kicking percentage on the tour so far is just over 80% which is impressive but that stat alone is not the impressive part. Pollard takes a lot of long-range kicks and attempts penalties that many other international kickers wouldn’t because of distance and angle. It’s a sign of his confidence in his own ability again.
The Bull’s fly-half is back making line breaks of his own and even nabbed a rare try with a beautiful, arcing run last weekend in Scotland. His stock is rising again and it is no wonder that South Africa are as well with him at the wheel.
The issue Erasmus has though is that his charges rarely put a game to bed and have it sewn up by 60 or 70 minutes. Of the 13 tests that they’ve played this year they have only won seven with just three of those being by more than a converted try. Their highest points margin for a win is just 13.
This tour has been just as tight. A one-point loss to England was closely followed by an 84th minute win over the French. Last weekend was slightly less dramatic with a six-point win at Murrayfield in a match that swung one way and then the other.
In each match, at some point, the Boks had the game by the scruff of the neck but somehow allowed their opponents back into it instead of going for the jugular.
The England game is the perfect example. I won’t bore you with stats but we all know how dominant South Africa were in the first half. The game should have been wrapped up at half-time but some how they contrived to lose it.
These lapses can be spun as many times as you want as ‘learning curves’, ‘experience’ and ‘reality checks’ but you can’t be saying that during knock out rugby in a year’s time.
Player welfare also becomes an issue as you can’t rest players as much. When a game is so tight the need to keep your most influential players on the field is greater which equals more exposure to high intensity, impact rugby for longer.
This Springbok team are now at a tipping point and the start of that tipping is this Saturday.
Wales are on an eight-game winning streak and finally look like they have an identity back in their game after a period in the wilderness. The men in red also have the Principality Stadium at their backs which can be an extremely intimidating place to go. They smell Springbok blood and they want a taste.
The green and gold have what it takes to win and on their day they should do just that. There is absolutely no doubt that there are potentially world class players littered throughout the squad as their victory over New Zealand in The Rugby Championship showed but is there a statement of a performance inside of them?
If there is then this would be the perfect time to pull it out of the bag. Start fast and don’t stop. There is a crude ruthlessness to this team that’s been witnessed in brief flashes but sometimes you feel like the handbrake hasn’t been fully released.
They have scored 321 points at an average of 24.7 this year but they’ve also conceded 310 at an average of just over 23.8, less than a point’s difference. As exciting as the attack is, that unit should be scoring more points as much as the defence should be stopping the leaks at the back.
The laziness in defence must stop as well. The kick chase from players like Aphiwe Dyanti and S’bu Nkosi can be of the highest order but if the midfield is stood ball watching and the bounces loosely the wrong way then you become extremely vulnerable.
Scotland played on that twice last weekend. Firstly, with the Peter Horne try that started from loose ball deep in Scotland’s own half and then later Huw Jones was afforded the time and space to run 20 metres to his left and 40 metres up the field without a hand being laid on him. The former Western Province man started that run in the shadow of his own posts. It was just another example of a defensive let off when pressure should have been applied.
This weekend Nkosi and Dyantyi will be up against George North and Josh Adams which will be a fascinating battle to watch both on the floor and even more so in the air. Both Springbok wingers can leap like salmons as we witnessed with Nkosi at Twickenham but North is a huge man who is solid under the high ball and Adams will beat the first man more often than not.
This area of the game could well be where the game is won or lost for both teams. Both back threes love to attack in broken field but the Welsh defence is better drilled than the Springboks at this point in time.
Rather than box kick, South Africa may look at kicking high into the midfield allowing the faster runners to go past the ball and suffocate the Welsh counter attack.
Whatever tactics are employed there is a need for a big performance from the South Africans and should they go home with a 3-1 record knowing that on any other day England would have been put to the sword then they will be mightily happy but should it be 2-2 then questions will be asked about the temperament of this young team and no one will want to hear excuses from that game at Twickenham any more.
Photo Credit: Warren Rohner via freeforcommercialuse.org