“Hey Siri, what is form?”
*Definitely not the thing Willie le Roux is in right now, Lindsey*
Ask any South African rugby fan about the Springbok performance in the routine victory over Japan in the #RWC19 quarterfinal and the response will be the same: “Faf kicks too much possession away and Le Roux must be dropped.” Depending on the colour of their skin and how closely they watch televised rugby games, you may hear some commentary about Lukhanyo Am and how Frans Steyn should be elevated to the starting lineup. But the current criticisms against Rassie’s charges is quite common and correct. Until it isn’t.
You see, I too have singled out De Klerk as the single chink in Erasmus’ formidable tactical armour and still stand by my words. But maybe not as firmly as I used did in this video:
The point my fuzzy former self makes is that our golden-haired nine gets too much creative freedom. I’ve since become enlightened with Rassie’s tactical nous by seeing the same playing patterns appear in the similar situations. Faf is the best trained dog on the field and the box kick worked wonders with the now disgraced Aphiwe Dyantyi on the right wing as opposed to the magnificent Makazole Mapimpi. Dyantyi has better acceleration and a better vertical jump, similar traits to the resurgent Cheslin Kolbe who manages to put in a better shift recovering De Klerk’s kicks on the right.
I’m still not convinced that Mapimpi is a left winger, but if he has to move there so we can deploy Kolbe on the right, then I’m here for it. But I digress.
Faf de Klerk knows the Springbok playbook better than any other player on the park and it limits the impact of a greater problem that we have: Handre Pollard does not pass well under pressure. Yes I said it. Our flyhalf general doesn’t get the ball moving outside of rare occasions where he runs into a gap, or when he is following a script. Pollards biggest weakness is his instincts and his ability to put his back line into space in open play. Playing the ball and picking the right pass/identifying the correct runner is then someone else’s responsibility, and that someone is Faf. Mapimpi’s second score against Japan is the only time in 2019 that Pollard created the scoring opportunity out of pure instinct and I will be very happy to see him do it more often.
And that brings us neatly to the man our back line relies on to spark the magic: Willem Jacobus le Roux.
Le Roux acts as a secondary (often primary) playmaker in the Springbok attack and is regularly tasked with floating into the midfield to cause mayhem among opposition defenders. Fortunately we have ample cover at the fullback berth in Steyn, Kolbe and Warrick Gelant, but when so many of our memorable recent moves are modelled around Le Roux’s mercurial talents, it’s hard to see Rassie changing tune and pulling is backfield maestro. But I could be wrong and that brings me to my gut feeling.
Although his current woes are quite genuine, I think Rassie was always going to tinker with his outside trio for the inevitable final against New Zealand. Look, I don’t yet have any answers for overcoming Wales but I’m confident enough that this Springbok team has the firepower to outgun them even on an off day, much like they did against Japan. So looking forward to the final is one way of me not having to deal with the mental trauma of semifinal anxiety this week.
Getting back to my hypothesis: what haven’t we seen from the Springboks this year yet? Since this is my blog post, I’ll show you.
There is nothing more demoralising for Springbok opposition than when the team can claim points from within its own half, while having the ability to front up on defense and keep you playing in yours. This ability is also a card Rassie Erasmus hasn’t played yet and something I think he is holding back for the final.
I have this feeling that Steve Hanson is losing sleep over the tactics he hasn’t seen from the Springboks yet, especially because we know exactly what the All Blacks are all about. New Zealand has had to show its rugby hand after Damian McKenzie crocked his ACL in April. Up until that point the game plan was developing nicely, but having to quickly rush the Richie Mo’unga project down the Kiwi gameplan production line caught the legendary New Zealand structures off-guard. See, Mo’unga doesn’t easily slot in at 15 so the system that was settled on swapping Barret and McKenzie at will has fallen apart. Ireland were always gonna get smacked because Joe Schmidt was hell bent on recycling the Sexton-obsessed Sistine Chapel playing system he painted in 2018.
So that’s my story. The Springboks will triumph in 2019 by taking a few pages from the 2007 storybook to finish the two-year Erasmus tale. The only problem I can predict is how we fair against a Wales team that will require the full book thrown at them.