Springboks' foundations rocked
July 10, 2010
Victor Matfield will be desperate to right some wrongs in Wellington © Getty Images
Revenge has become a taboo subject. In the modern game, players are not supposed to be motivated by a base desire; they are calm, professional and focused on the task at hand.
Only, getting your own back is naturally one of the key motivators for any side. All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw admitted as much in the build-up to his side's brilliant 32-12 victory over South Africa in Auckland, a comprehensive triumph that completed stage one in their planned recovery from a 3-0 hammering to the Springboks in last season's Tri-Nations. Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Kieran Read and Tony Woodcock scored their tries to also crucially seal a bonus-point.
After a series of insipid June Tests, this was the game in which the big boys could stake their claim as the best side in the world. On offer was a vital advantage in the race to the southern hemisphere title, top spot in the IRB Test rankings and the psychological boon of beating your nearest rivals on the ground at which next year's Rugby World Cup final will be staged.
South Africa have made huge steps under Peter De Villiers in terms of winning on New Zealand soil, sealing the title in Hamilton last year and silencing Carisbrook in 2008, but a first victory at Eden Park since 1937 proved to be a bridge too far. The tourists were not merely beaten; they were made to think again about the very foundations of their game.
At their swaggering best the Springbok pack is a tireless, ruthless machine. In Auckland they were ragged, losing the gainline battle comprehensively, conceding ground at the scrum and crucially losing their way at their favoured battleground, the lineout. While the All Blacks' effort was notable for a string of standout performances, the Springboks can point to little other than Bakkies Botha's escape for a headbutt on Jimmy Cowan and subsequent yellow card for killing the ball as memorable moments.
The press had a field day in the build-up to the Test, building up the stature of Victor Matfield as the world's finest lock and in many cases as some sort of lineout-stealing demigod. The Bulls skipper, not aided by the anonymity of the rest of his forward pack, endured a quiet game by his own exacting standards and was outplayed by the returning Tom Donnelly.
Donnelly, only weeks into his comeback from a broken foot, personified the efforts put in by the home eight. Every carry came at full tilt, his lineout work was squeaky clean and he weighed in with nine tackles, many of which were of the bulldozing variety. The Otago lock is a brilliantly honest, unfashionable player and his assessment of Matfield on this occasion proved to be spot-on. "He's only one man," he said. "He's gone two arms and two legs like everyone else. If you do your research on him and everyone is on the same page, you can cut down the options. You just have to get stuck into him, really."
Donnelly was ably backed up by McCaw, whose link play was sharper and more abundant than in recent Tests, fullback Mils Muliaina, hooker Keven Mealamu, the tireless Read and the well-balanced centre pairing of Nonu and Smith. Tactically, Graham Henry and his brains trust must also take a bow as the gameplan which their side executed was plotted to perfection.
Shorn of Fourie du Preez at scrum-half the Springboks lost half of their kicking arsenal, and their kick-chase was a pale imitation of last season, giving the All Blacks time and space to counter from deep to excellent effect. The lineout battle was won by the home side firstly by avoiding it, with a series of quick throws and shortened set-pieces allied to a determination to keep the ball in play, and later with attention to the basics.
By taking away the lineout, they took away the maul and with Tony Woodcock, Mealamu and Owen Franks on top in the scrums, possession dried up for the visitors. Ricky Januarie may lose the green and gold No.9 jersey to Ruan Pienaar after adding to their troubles with a dismal showing, but the All Blacks may also be tempted to substitute Piri Weepu, whose cameo was full of quick delivery and invention, for the off-colour Cowan.
The Springboks are a considerably better side than the one which trudged from the field in Auckland and the All Blacks will expect a massive step-up in their competitiveness next weekend in Wellington. The hosts will want more of the same. The ball is in the Springboks' court and as ever, the mark of true champions may be seen in their reaction to a major setback.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.