Winning Bok team deserves a different narrative

rugby30 October 2023 05:34| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Springboks lift World Cup © Getty Images

After they so confidently and arrogantly predicted that France 2023 would be the Rugby World Cup dominated by the northern hemisphere, it is probably understandable that overseas pundits that take themselves too seriously might be letting bitterness override their objectivity.

Indeed, it might also be understandable that there are concerns about the standing of the World Cup and future interest in the event globally given how two teams have dominated the tournament since England became the only northern hemisphere team to win the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003.

By the time the next RWC kicks off in Australia in 2027, it won’t only be 24 years since a northern team won, it will also be 24 years since one of the two historical powerhouses of the world game didn’t win it.

There have been five World Cups since the 2003 event, and the Springboks have won it thrice and New Zealand twice. It does look like it is becoming a closed shop.

Boring? Apparently some northern hemisphere people think so. Then of course there are the Bok haters, of which there are many, something that had its genesis in the spiteful 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions, when the backdrop of Covid and empty stands at the Cape Town Stadium didn’t help anyone’s mood.

South Africa’s national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has successfully deflected a lot of attention from the team to himself over the past few years, but it hasn’t stopped the Boks from being reviled by those who have selective memories and perception.


Talking of selective memory, there has been quite a bit of that in the comment post this past Saturday’s epic and dramatic World Cup final that was won by a solitary point by Siya Kolisi’s team at Stade de France.

The Boks have been couched by some as a team with a limited game-plan and a team that lacks attacking ambition, neither of which is true.

The reality is that the Bok campaign of Rugby World Cup 2023 was in many ways the antithesis of the successful 2019 campaign.

Four years ago the Boks did employ a fairly limited game-plan based around forward grunt and physical defence - until the final in Yokohama, where they shocked England with some dynamic attacking plays that eventually realised two of the best tries scored in a global final.

This year it was the converse. If a year ago you’d said the Bok coaches would back a flyhalf in the Manie Libbok mode for a World Cup you would have been laughed at.

Prior to their narrow defeat to France in Marseille last November, when by the way they played with 14 men most of the way, you’d have also laughed at any suggestion that they’d make a habit of running back kick receipt and being prepared to back their counter-attack.

But they did that in volumes in the World Cup and in the build-up to it, and until the final itself, they backed Libbok, who is a dynamic attacking player who is anything but risk-averse and far removed from the usual safety-first South African pivot, as their starting flyhalf.

Until the semifinal against England, the Boks were the fourth lowest ranked among the 20 teams at the World Cup when it came to the number of kicks executed per match.

The figure was 21, well below the average of 30 kicks per game they recorded in Japan four years ago. And with Libbok wearing the No 10, they also scored some quite spectacular tries.


While everyone is rightly now praising Handre Pollard for the pressure kicks he landed in the quarterfinal against France and the monstrous winning kick in the semifinal against England, it is hard to imagine that the Boks would still have been in the game for Pollard to make a difference when he came on had it not been for their well-taken first-half tries.

France were the dominant team in the first 40 minutes of the quarterfinal, but every time they scored a try the Boks responded in kind.

The skill level of Libbok was at the heart of it as the Boks ensured they stayed in the game by scoring three tries in response to the three scored by France.

It was a well-worked plan, for in the second half the Boks were able to turn the screws at forward and play a different game and it worked. They found a way to win. Which is what they do.

That game was described by many as possibly the finest World Cup game ever, and the Boks played a full part in that.

So what changed subsequent to that game, which was only a fortnight ago but yet feels like it could have been months ago? It’s quite simple really, the weather changed.

Just like in the Japan World Cup it started off in the humidity of late summer and then turned temperate and even a little chilly in the final weeks, so the dry heat of the European summer gave way to the advance guard of the approaching northern autumn. In other words, the rain arrived.

The Bok management might have been a bit slow to react initially. When they saw the inclement weather over Paris on the day of the semifinal, they should have changed their selection.

Libbok is now a world-class flyhalf, but Pollard is definitely the better suited to wet-weather rugby.

The change in the weather meant that the Boks couldn’t execute the plan that might have buried England on a dry day, meaning the devastating use of ball kicked on them by the Bok game-breakers that had torn England apart at Twickenham the previous November.

It required a switch of tactics, and the Boks probably understood that, but for the first hour of the England game they looked a bit betwixt and between and appeared to have been taken out of their comfort zone.

It wasn’t a day for 80-metre tries, but some of the Bok plays suggested they thought they could still manage that.


When similar weather threatened for the final, it was obvious what the Boks needed to do, and I wrote in a statistical dive piece last Wednesday - they had to return to the suffocating, basic and no-frills game that drew criticism when they won the Lions series two years ago.

Which is what they did. They showed they can adapt, they employed a horses-for-courses approach and it won them the World Cup. Job done.

The Bok adaptability has become their big strength and hopefully enough of the current World Cup-winning coaching team will stay on into this next cycle to carry it forward.

The year lost to Covid was more of a stumbling block to the evolution of the Bok game than many people realise, but hopefully there won’t be any global pandemics or other stumbling blocks as the Boks did show at this World Cup what a formidable team they could become if they continue to evolve as they are.

This country will never be short of forward talent and there is also an overload of X-factor backline players coming through - just think of the Stormers as an example.

And while some critics may not recognise it, I bet many opposing coaches do: South Africa has flicked the switch away from the conservative thinking that prevented them from dominating the sport to the extent that they could. You don’t always know what you're getting from the Boks as opponents anymore.

The depth of talent available to them was as much the secret to the Bok success at this World Cup as the indomitable spirit that saw to it that they got through the playoff stage with three one-point victories.

When they lost Malcolm Marx to injury early in the tournament there would have been many South Africans who felt that the chances of winning had been diminished by up to 40 per cent.

I certainly felt that way, and ditto when it became known before the squad announcement that Lood de Jager, Lukhanyo Am and Pollard, three stars of the 2019 triumph, would not be there.

The latter two of course joined later but not before Jesse Kriel and Libbok had shown what they could do in the absence of the 2019 heroes.

De Jager, with his size and therefore massive influential presence at lineout time, was missed as much as Marx was, and that cues the question of whether Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber got it right when it came to their decision not to call for a specialist hooker replacement.

They get full marks for being bold, and for me, Deon Fourie was one of the unsung heroes of the World Cup win, but the jury should remain out on whether backing the flanker to fulfil his old role as a hooker was the right decision as it was the lineout dysfunction as much as anything that brought the All Blacks back into the final when the Boks looked like they were in control.

In fact, the final merits a bit of revisiting in this wash-up of the Bok triumph. There is a perception, an understandable one too, that the game was decided when All Black captain Sam Cane was red-carded.

But that is not as clear-cut as many think. A team is often galvanised when a player is red carded, the Bok performance against France in Marseille last November and England’s win over Argentina in the opening rounds of the World Cup being obvious examples.

All Black centre Rieko Ioane seemed convinced that he and his teammates lifted themselves when Cane was sent off, and there is no reason to disbelieve him. If it happened, it wouldn’t be the first time.


Even if we ignore the fact the Boks were also down to 14 men for 20 minutes, what is not debatable is that the incident that saw Shannon Frizell yellow carded and Bongi Mbonambi injured in just the third minute of the game did off-set the impact of any All Black cards.

Losing their only specialist hooker at that point was probably the worst nightmare. Well, just behind the same thing happening to the scrumhalf, Faf de Klerk, for Erasmus and Nienaber.

The Boks controlled the early parts of the game but for those of us watching, the probable impact of Mbonambi going off so early was always nagging uncomfortably in the background.

If you can’t control your lineouts, it is so hard to gain any kind of momentum and keep it. And after a few initial safe throws from Fourie, that proved to be the case.

That’s another area where this World Cup was so different for the Boks in comparison to the last one.

From memory, the Boks lost one lineout in the tournament in Japan, in this tournament the lineout creaked regularly. As did some other aspects of set phase that were bankers four years ago.

And yet they still found a way to win, not just in the final but in the other two playoff games.

That amounts to a stupendous achievement, and their ability to win in adversity, their ability to adjust tactics and think on the hoof when it was needed, and their adeptness at learning from mistakes and internalising them, should be the real overriding narrative of this fourth Bok World Cup triumph.