INTERNATIONAL WRAP: Boks sound loud warning to the world

rugby08 July 2024 05:20| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Siya Kolisi © Gallo Images

Let’s get this little fact out of the way first, seeing as many appeared to be expecting the Springboks to win by more - when Ireland went down to the world champions at Loftus at the weekend, it was only their third loss in their last 24 games.

Since they got knocked out of the Rugby World Cup in France in the quarterfinal stage last October, they’ve lost two games, one a narrow defeat to England at Twickenham that denied them their second successive Grand Slam, which would have been a record in the Six Nations era. And now to the Boks.

Before they lost to the All Blacks in Paris, they’d gone 17 games without defeat, and were one match away from equalling the record of successive wins by a Tier 1 nation, which was 18. Ireland are not a Mickey Mouse team, they are comfortably in the top two in the world, and much has changed since they were last here in 2016, when their win in Cape Town was celebrated as their first ever in South Africa.

Those facts need to be pointed out because the Boks looked like they were between games at Loftus, and there has been some concern about them being too expansive. To be sure, it is a long time since a Bok outside centre has been as involved as much on attack, with the intent to set him up, as man of the match Jesse Kriel was at Loftus.

And sometimes the Boks were a bit like the Stormers, in the sense that they got rid of the ball too quickly and went for Hail Mary passes and risky options. Towards the end, there was just a hint that the tempo they played with might be catching up with them too.

But here’s the thing - there were always going to be teething problems, a rugby team doesn’t automatically just hit its groove and synchronise all the parts when embarking on something a little new, just like a stage act often doesn’t hit perfection on opening night either. If you want to get the best of the play you want to go and watch, go a few nights in, when the performers have everything off pat and have grown into their parts.


While there were some false notes, they beat Ireland. Yes, let’s repeat that, Ireland. There was a time when Ireland, such as at the infamous Battle of Loftus in 1998, when the visitors knew they were going to lose so they just decided to fight instead, were easy to beat. Not any more.

Ireland won’t be creating history on this tour because this is only a two-game series, so they can no longer win it like they did in New Zealand two years ago. What we do know after Loftus though is that Ireland have a reasonable chance of squaring the series, for at Loftus they showed they have come here to play and have come with intent. The Boks broke a three-game losing sequence against Ireland but got the rub of the green with some TMO calls, or it could have been a different story.

That though is the trend of Bok/Ireland games now. There have been three in a row that have been decided by narrow margins - two won by Ireland, now one won by the Boks. In all three games, there have been complaints that coaches could have made about calls that might have influenced the result, and there have been opportunities missed.

That latter part mostly by the Boks, who maintained that trend in Pretoria, with Handre Pollard having his place-kicking boots desert him to the point that there was no difference in his reliability on the day to that of Manie Libbok, who missed kicks in Paris eight months ago, and Damian Willemse and a couple of others who did the same in Dublin the year before.

The Boks were never dominated in the game by the No 2 team in the world. They were nervous at the end but there were times when they looked to have the win comfortably in hand. For the first 30 minutes and for most of the third quarter, they were patently the better team.


That Ireland never gave up and kept coming back at them is to the visiting team’s credit, and no one will deny the Boks got too loose, and may have overdone their excitement in embracing the new dynamics they’ve introduced, or are in the process of introducing, to their attacking game.

But if that is the case, then the Loftus game was a loud and unambiguous warning to the rest of the rugby world - the Boks do intend to evolve their game to the point that they become as potent in playing a possession-orientated game as they always have been at the kick and chase and suffocating defence strategy that last year was complemented by a potent counter-attack.

Someone who really appeared to embrace the more expansive approach was skipper Siya Kolisi, who featured in the set-up to the brilliant opening try within the first three minutes that was effectively the difference between the sides on the final scoreboard. On several occasions, Kolisi featured again as a carrier out wide, as did Pieter-Steph du Toit. The Bok threats are multiplying.

“I’m really enjoying the way coach Tony (Brown) is getting the team to attack as a group so I really enjoyed getting the ball in my hands,” said Kolisi.

“We’re going to get better each week; we are still learning what coach Tony wants us to do but it is only going to get better.”

Hear that, future Bok opponents? Many international coaches that have visited here, if engaged in an off-the-record conversation, have stated that it would be a bad day for the rest of the world if South African rugby finally figures out that there is more than one way to play. And that they have the personnel to play a different way. Judging from what we saw at Loftus, and in truth it was something that started in the year building up to the most recent World Cup, Erasmus has figured that one out.

“I hope you can see we’re trying to develop our attacking game with the foundation that Felix (Jones) laid. With Tony (attack coach) we’re trying to step up a little in certain areas and with that comes mistakes and lack of cohesion,” said Erasmus after his team’s seven-point win.

“But in saying that, Ireland are not No 2 in the world for nothing and their defensive system is really sound. It was a very stop-start game, there was a two-minute delay here with either an injury or someone getting treated. It was no one’s fault, but for both teams it hampered momentum.”


There’s a misconception that the Bok heroes tend to be forwards and that the players of true ability are found in the pack but that isn’t true. If the Boks had been playing regular international rugby in the 1980s it would have been backs like Michael and Carel du Plessis, Danie Gerber, Johan Heunis, and earlier in the decade Gysie Pienaar, Naas Botha (he was more than just a kicker) and Ray Mordt, who wouldn’t have gone to Rugby League if there was regular international competition, would have captivated the world.

Cheslin Kolbe has already captivated the world, and that little get-out-of-jail on the Bok line when he kicked the ball downfield under intense pressure in the early minutes was nothing short of sublime. Kurt-Lee Arendse is doing the same, Kriel too, and Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, who are not currently in the team, showed us what they could do as long ago as 2019.

In England, those who have seen Andre Esterhuizen excel for Harlequins wonder how it is possible he is not a first choice at the Boks. There is a good reason that he isn’t - Damian de Allende.

Canan Moodie, the new kid on the block Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, and let’s not forget the injured Damian Willemse - are those backline players really behind the best in the world, assumed to be the Kiwis when it comes to back play? The Bok assistant coach Brown is a New Zealander, and he clearly thinks that if there is a gap, it can be closed.


That doesn’t mean the Boks need to eschew what has won them two successive World Cups. Evolution is necessary. If you stand still in rugby, you lose. But the word “evolution” does not mean you change completely from one thing to another. Man has evolved, but has done so without changing the adaptation to standing on two legs that happened during the era of the Neanderthals.

When man first landed on the moon, there wasn’t a drive to say “Okay guys, now we’ve proved we can land on the moon, we don’t have to stand on two legs anymore, we’ve moved on.” So the Bok coaches won’t ever be saying “Okay guys, now that we are able to run the ball, we don’t have to worry about forward play, physicality and defence.” Nobody would ever be that dumb.


On the evidence of the weekend, after beating the European champions, the Boks even while between games are ahead of the other southern hemisphere teams they will meet in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship next month. New Zealand, playing their first game under Scott Robertson, would have lost to England in Dunedin had the visitors not made some crucial errors and had Marcus Smith nailed his kicks.

The All Blacks probably deserved to win, just, but on the early evidence they are going to miss the physical carry of their two departed locks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

Their scrum was good, better than the Boks scrum was until that pivotal set piece late in the game that netted them their match-clinching penalty try. And as always, they showed their ability to create something out of nothing. No doubt they will be better this week when they head to their Eden Park fortress, where they haven’t lost since the French beat them with the last gasp “try from the end of the world” that is still remembered 30 years later.

Australia are going to need to be considerably better than they were in edging out Wales, in a game where the TMO also had a big say in the result, if they are to host the Boks at the start of the Rugby Championship season in the middle of next month with any confidence. There were glimpses though of improvement under new coach Joe Schmidt.

There again, they could hardly be as poor again as they were at last year’s World Cup and for most of the 18 months before that…

Weekend International Results

South Africa 27 Ireland 20

New Zealand 16 England 15

Australia 25 Wales 16

Argentina 13 France 28

Canada 12 Scotland 73

Samoa 33 Italy 25