Guest writer Mike Bersiks gives an analysis nof the Boks’ performance against Italy.
A 44-10 win in their first match of the season is a pretty good result for the Springboks.
In fact, it could be said that this is the first match of a new era under Heyneke Meyer, so pronounced were some of the steps taken forward in the Bok style of play.
After a lacklustre first year in charge Meyer has clearly decided that aiming for second best behind the All Blacks is not good enough. From the evidence of his selections and the Bok style of play in the Italy Test, Meyer has clearly decided that the Boks need to shift towards the pacy, dynamic style of play perfected in recent years by New Zealand if they are to once again dominate the world of rugby as they did briefly during the Jake White/John Smit era. That is, obviously, without sacrificing the traditional South African strengths of proficiency at the set-pieces and forward dominance, but more on that later.
Firstly, for those of you who say this win was only achieved against Italy, remember that the Azzurri scored wins against both Ireland and France in the Six Nations this year. The current Italy side under coach Jacques Brunel are no longer a one-dimensional outfit that can only scrum and not do much else. For a 20-minute period at the beginning of the second half in Durban they showed how far they have progressed in terms of implementing a multi-phase, ball-in hand gameplan. In fact Italy probably went too far in terms of throwing the ball around in the wrong parts of the field, and gifted the Boks at least one try.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of the Springbok performance in Durban. Things they did well:
• Backline Attack – For the first time in the Meyer era rucks were being cleared at speed instead of waiting for forward pods to form. The backline was running straight and hard, onto flat passes instead of drifting laterally. Debutants Wilie le Roux and JJ Engelbrecht were especially prominent in this respect, although both players made several mistakes on attack (Engelbrecht scored one try but butchered two more scoring opportunities). Le Roux in particular showed in one match just what the Boks were lacking last year in the number 15 jersey. Although he didn’t play badly in the green and gold in 2012, the pedestrian Zane Kirchner just doesn’t have the pace or skillset necessary for an international-class outside back. Too many times last season the only ideas the Bok backline seemed to have on attack were to bash it up in the number 12 channel. Offloads were a rarity in 2012, but were much more in evidence against Italy due to the willingness to attack from deep and the lines players were running in support.
• Pace – The pure speed shown by Bryan Habana, Le Roux, Engelbrecht and Bjorn Basson was enough to give any defence coach in the world sleepless nights. Habana in particular looks like he has slimmed down a bit and got more gas in the tank. He left the Italian line of defence for dead on a number of occasions en route to creating a try for Engelbrecht and scoring a super one himself. Despite a silly yellow card due to a high tackle Basson also had his best ever outing in a Bok jersey, finally looking like the player who has done so well for the Bulls in Super Rugby.
• Defence – The Boks defended well even when put under pressure deep in their own half for long periods. Very few tackles were missed and there were several examples of the trademark Springbok offensive defence, driving players back and forcing turnovers from physicality on the gain-line. New flank Arno Botha’s workrate in particular was noteworthy in this phase of the game, and the Blue Bulls youngster could be set for a long Bok career. Question marks were raised over his defence when selected to the Bok team, but Le Roux saved two certain tries with tackle on Sergio Parisse, and an interception and mark of a cross kick.
Although the result was never really in doubt, the 44-10 scoreline did flatter the Boks somewhat. There are several areas that need to be improved ahead of the next Test against Scotland:
• Set Pieces – The line-out worked reasonably well, but after a few good early scrums the oomph seemed to go out of the Bok frontrow and Italy milked four penalties from a dominant scummaging performance. Bok loosehead Beast Mtawarira in particular seemed to tire and came in for some rough treatment. The Boks restored some parity late in the game when another promising debutant, Trevor Nyakane, replaced Beast. Meyer has indicated that he will be making some changes ahead of the Scotland Test. Starting Cheetahs props Coenie Oosthuizen and Nyakane, and resting the tired looking Sharks pair of Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis are looking like a good option.
• Kick-Offs – This phase of play was a shambles for the Springboks with several balls being knocked-on or allowed to bounce. I can only put it down to early season rustiness, but it’s obviously an area of concern against a better side than Italy.
• Scrumhalf – Although South Africa has several very good scrumhalves, no one has managed to make the Bok number nine jersey his own since the exit of Fourie du Preez. Jano Vermaak impressed with some of his passing, but was caught with the ball several times and now looks to be out for an extended period of time with a serious hamstring injury. Ruan Pienaar will come back into the starting team and Bok fans will hope that he is the answer. A bonus of Pienaar’s inclusion is that it strengthens the bench by allowing a place for utility back Francois Hougaard.