Brenden Nel in his SuperSport column highlights an obvious trend by the All Blacks first raised by Australian coach, Ewen McKenzie, and something referees must now start taking note of.
Brenden Nel – SuperSport
Springbok teams have often been accused of their over-the-top tactics, using brute force to try and bludgeon out a victory and paying the price for overzealous play, but the current crop of players under Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer are certainly an exception.
After the dramatic loss in Auckland last weekend, a number of New Zealand rugby writers chose to ignore the foul play of players like Ma’a Nonu and once again blamed the Bok loss on their knack to use brawn over brain as they try to physically dominate the opposition.
And while this is very definitely true of Springbok teams of the modern professional era, Bok coach Meyer has made it a personal mission to ensure that if the Boks are on the wrong side of the scoreboard, it isn’t because they are on the wrong side of the foul play law.
Meyer has been very clear to his team about the liability they pose when they concede a card, and while Auckland’s horror reffing show highlighted the human error element of a referee, the Boks have taken it up as a personal mission to ensure they not only bring down their penalty count, but also limit the time off the field as a result of foul play.
This is one reason why the card to Du Plessis was so disappointing, as it brought the same one-eyed response from the World Champion nation and highlighted stereotypes that certainly aren’t true under the current coaching staff.
But it has also highlighted the need for the Springboks to take a long, hard look at themselves as a team. Too often in the past they have blamed referees and officials for their own failings. It isn’t Meyer’s fault the world sees South Africa as a dirty nation who rely on foul play when they don’t get things right. There is statistical analysis that backs this up.
Yet in the same breath Meyer and his coaching team should be commended for taking on the tough task of changing the perception of a Springbok team that is always looked at for the wrong reasons.
This season alone the Boks have been measured in their response to physical on-field intimidation – something that has escaped the eye of the zealots in New Zealand. Physical domination will always be part of rugby, but if the Boks are to avoid a repeat of the Auckland fiasco, they will need to do their part to try and change the outlook on South African teams.
Meyer’s coaching team has tasked Chean Roux – appointed as technical analyst earlier in the year – with the job of analysing exactly where the team can change this perception and, like most things, it has to start with an inward change.
While the spin out of New Zealand and Australia has been on a big grunt effort to physically impose themselves on the opposition, the Boks have been very measured in what they have done, and with Meyer making it clear that indiscipline will not be tolerated, their disciplinary record has already shown progress, although it will take a while to convince everybody.
Meyer drew the line in the sand last year when he apologised for Dean Greyling’s attack on Richie McCaw. He made it clear on that day in Dunedin that such play will not be tolerated, and players who overstep the line would not be picked for the Boks.
Since then Greyling has yet to be invited to a training camp, although it must be added that his own game suffered since.
But the line was still drawn. Since that day the Boks have been resolute in their ability not to react to the incitement they receive in every game.
This year alone there have been allegations of biting, eye gouging (Argentina), ball-tampering and stiff arm tackles (Samoa) and the coathanger of Nonu (New Zealand) and all have been by the opposition with the Boks keeping a cool head.
It has been a remarkable improvement in the statistics as well – where the Boks are the team in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship who concede the least penalties. So far, in four games the Boks have conceded 31 penalties – an average of just under eight a game. Considering the benchmark among international coaches is 10 per game, this shows how far they have come, especially with the Auckland game being played with 14 men for 50 minutes.
No surprise that Australia have conceded the most – at 45 penalties thus far in the competition, but the All Blacks and Argentina are equal in conceding 44 penalties each.
Interestingly the All Blacks concede penalties mostly at defensive rucks, giving credence to the belief that they play cynically in front of lenient referees who aren’t keen to card them. More than half the All Blacks penalties come at the ruck, and mostly on defensive rucks. It is clear the All Blacks would rather give away a penalty than a try and are willing to infringe to do so.
Another interesting stat is that in the penalty count, South Africa features very low, with All Black captain Richie McCaw – who is often accused of getting away with professional fouls – the highest offender in the competition thus far, even though he didn’t play in Auckland against the Boks.
But there is another reason for Meyer and co to try and change perceptions – and it isn’t just that they feel wronged at times.
Since the yellow and red card system was introduced in 2000, South Africa have by far had the highest number of yellow cards issued at international level among the leading sides.
The Boks have a massive 79 cards given against them – almost double more than New Zealand’s 48.
And while many may cry foul at times, not even the most patriotic fan could say that the majority were not warranted. The Boks have been their worst enemies and have deserved the tag of a brutal, bully team at times, one that goes outside the bounds of the law when they don’t get their way.
It is a tag that has cost them heavily over the years, and has been at the back of referees’ minds across the world.
Now Meyer and co know they need to change the perception. Auckland was an unfortunate incident and it took restraint not to join the chorus of outrage after the game.
The Bok management are rather quietly getting on behind the scenes to change the perception and turn the Boks into one of the most disciplined sides in world rugby.
They are doing their part, but it will take constant improvement to sway those who refuse to believe that anything has changed.
Only when they get that part right will the world start taking them seriously – and only then will the spotlight get thrown on other teams – like New Zealand – who have operated under the radar for so long.