In the lead-up to facing Ireland anyone wearing a Springbok tracksuit proclaimed that the Autumn tour to Ireland, Britain and Italy was the beginning of their World Cup preparation and not an isolated sequence of games.
By that measurement, Saturday’s 29-15 loss to Ireland at the Aviva represented a stark wake-up call for the Springboks. Happy memories of victories on the sun-baked highveld were brutally erased by a dominant Ireland on a damp and cold night.
There are only seven games remaining for the Boks before next year’s showpiece in England, and only three left to play in the northern hemisphere on this tour. From a relatively comfortable position after beating the All Blacks at Ellis Park in October, the peformance against Ireland has raised more questions than coach Heyneke Meyer would have liked.
“I’d rather lose one now and see where we’re at for the World Cup next year than for it to happen then. Now I can see where we can adapt and improve,” Meyer said.
“The Irish deserve a lot of credit though – they played the conditions better and were tactically superior. We knew it was going to be a tough tussle and we were not good enough on the day.”
Imprecise ball retention, impatience in attack, failure to adapt to the breakdown interpretations of French referee Romain Poite and poor performances by some individuals will give Meyer much to ponder.
On the positive side of the ledger, the Bok scrum was rock solid and the lineout purred along nicely – at least until No 8 Duane Vermeulen was forced to throw in with hooker Adriaan Strauss in the sin bin for a fairly innocuous challenge on Rob Kearney.
Tactically Ireland were superior, especially with their varied kicking game, which denied the Springboks the opportunity to engage physically in the opening quarter.
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray produced the kind of tactical kicking performance that was the hallmark of Meyer’s Bulls teams seven years ago when Fourie du Preez and Morné Steyn ruled that aspect of the game.
The Irish duo’s ability to put the Boks on the back foot through the boot also served to underline how poor Bok half-back Francois Hougaard played and how much they miss Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar.
Meyer refused to single out individuals afterwards but Hougaard’s time as Bok half-back must be numbered. South Africa simply cannot go into next weekend’s match against England and have such an inept scrum-half display.
Hougaard’s calamitous day, that included two knock-ons with the Boks heavily on attack, are mistakes that are too costly at the top end of the sport.
Fly-half Handré Pollard simply couldn’t get into the game because the service he received was so ponderous. Coupled with Ireland’s superb line speed on defence, the 20-year-old pivot looked as callow as his age indicates.
The problem for Meyer though is that Cobus Reinach is not a natural kicker but rather an attacking scrum-half in the Joost van der Westhuizen mould. He is improving his all-round game and he cannot possibly do worse than Hougaard, so he deserves a chance to start.
One area where the Boks will take heart heading into a clash with England, is from the set piece. The Boks scrum was massively dominant and the lineout, with Victor Matfield in the vanguard, was as solid as ever. Tight-head Jannie du Plessis, often a maligned figure in South Africa, gave a strong display and will be one of the key figures in team meetings this week to ensure morale stays high despite this setback.
“It’s a little disheartening to have really played well in the final round of the Rugby Championship and then put up a performance like this,” Du Plessis said. “It’s hard to pinpoint where we lost it, but we battled for momentum. ”
Ireland out-thought and out-played the Springboks, who produced, through a combination of Irish pressure and their own ineptitude, one of the worst performances under Meyer.
But just as one excellent performance, such as the win over NZ, doesn’t prove the Boks are the best in the world, so too one poor display doesn’t mean they are a bad team either. They’ve shown good character at crucial times this season and they’ll need to dip into that well again next weekend.
* The author writes for the Times group in South Africa.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved