The Springboks put their fans through an intense exercise in frustration as they went down 13-8 to Ireland in their key pool B Rugby World Cup clash with Ireland at Stade de France on Saturday night but the result hasn’t impacted their belief that they can retain the trophy.
Coach Jacques Nienaber and skipper Siya Kolisi were both in a defiant mood after the game, and so they should have been because a five-point defeat to the world’s No 1-ranked team in a game they should have won is certainly not an indicator that retaining the World Cup trophy they won in Japan four years ago is beyond them.
At the same time though, there are some realities that the South Africans need to face up to, and one of them is that this was the second time in less than a year that they pretty much took out a 12-bore shotgun and riddled their own feet with bullets against these same opponents. They also lost a game they should have won in Dublin last November.
There were times that it appeared the Boks were determined to conspire against themselves and what should really be disturbing during the predictable post-match discourse about learning from mistakes is that they wouldn’t have learned anything in the tight Paris match that they didn’t know already.
Against Ireland you need to be clinical, meaning you need to finish off your try-scoring opportunities and kick all your goals, you need to be disciplined and you need to be relatively error-free. Siya Kolisi’s men would have known that ahead of time but they got none of that right as Ireland scored the win that will probably book them a meeting with New Zealand in the quarterfinal stage.
LIKELY TO FACE THE HOSTS IN THE QUARTERS
The Boks now look likely to play hosts France in the mid-October face-off between the four top teams in the world and only time will tell whether that means they are condemned to an early exit or whether they are going to be party poopers by knocking out the hosts early while Ireland, by holding their nerve and winning the big moments, may have inherited a poisoned chalice.
Of course, Saturday night’s result does introduce potential jeopardy for the champions when it comes to advancing out of their group. If Scotland beat Ireland in the final round of the pool phase, it could mean that the Boks face the ignominy of going home before the playoffs for the first time in their World Cup history if they don’t get full points against Tonga.
Yet while the pressure is on them, the reality is that the Boks won’t be waking up at the start of the new week feeling any different from how they did before Saturday’s game: Everyone knows there isn’t much to choose between the top two ranked teams, and the Paris clash demonstrated it. The Boks could so easily have won it despite missing out on 11 points from the tee and being on the wrong end of some dodgy calls from referee Ben O’Keefe towards the end.
REMINDER OF 2019
They were certainly closer to winning than they were in Yokohama four years ago when they lost their opening game of the 2019 World Cup to New Zealand, and coach Jacques Nienaber was quick to reference that afterwards.
“In 2019, did you think we could win?” he said when asked post-match if the defeat had dented his confidence that the team could retain the Webb Ellis trophy.
“We are in this competition to win, everyone is here to win. We played against the number one team in the world and we lost by five points. We had a chance in the 79th minute to win but we didn’t take it. The bottom line is Ireland were better but the margin was very small. We must work at things that didn’t work and if we can fix them and have a bit of luck, we can win the World Cup.”
One of those things that need correction is of course the goalkicking, but both Nienaber and skipper Kolisi refused to lay the blame just on the points that were left on the table.
“We didn’t lose the game in one department,” said Kolisi. “We gave away 12 penalties, often at the breakdown. We created such good opportunities and we got to the 22 and we didn’t take them.
“In a game like this, that is what happens. Some things went well. The intensity of the game was exactly what we needed. Ireland were quicker than us and able to get those opportunities.”
MUST AVOID BEING CAUGHT IN A RUT OF DENIAL
Kolisi is right of course, but while the defiance shown by both him and his coach should be as encouraging to Bok supporters as it is expected, the Bok leaders need to be careful of becoming too good at evoking another word that begins with d - denial. Yes, there were other factors in the defeat, but the Boks would have won had they nailed their kicks and it is as simple as that.
Of course, there will be many who will view Libbok’s poor kicking at goal as reason to call up Handre Pollard to wear the No 10 jersey going forward, but it may not be as simple as that as Libbok is playing well and it is now well over a year since the injury-prone Pollard has played international rugby.
On the subject of denial, the decision not to call up a specialist hooker when Malcolm Marx was injured - and what a loss he is to the Bok cause - was spotlighted when Deon Fourie threw skew when the Boks were in an attacking position at a lineout in the final minutes.
Clearly, the management spotlighted the goalkicking blips as a more critical problem to solve when they made their call, but it does appear at this point that the Boks are a team that has a growing number of holes in the dyke that need plugging. Perhaps more so than at a corresponding stage of the 2019 tournament, when the first-choice team was pretty much intact and injury-free.