DURBAN - When Sean Fitzpatrick was still playing for the All Blacks he was once asked if he could give the Old Foe a tip on how to get back to winning ways (the Boks were having a bad run).
“Just do what has always come naturally to you, it worked for a hundred years,” Fitzy smiled.
Well, the hooker has been long retired and while he was referring to what worked for the Boks in the amateur era when they were naturally bigger and stronger than most opponents, we have seen that the game is ever-evolving away from what was successful for the Boks for so long.
South African teams can no longer bully anybody. It was fun in the old days to play skinny accountants, doctors and lawyers from England, Ireland, Scotland, etc because the farmers from South Africa were brutes. New Zealanders were not too scrawny themselves, comprising so many sheep farmers, and the coal miners of Wales were also brawny.
In the professional era, everybody is much of a muchness physically. It is no longer a case of training in the evenings twice a week after work and playing a match on Saturday. Now everybody is in the gym five days a week and taking the same body-building supplements. South Africans no longer have a size advantage and running through opponents no longer works.
The cornerstone of successful Springbok teams in the past was immaculate set pieces, fierce driving mauls, kicking for territory and kicking goals.
It sounds a bit like how the Springboks won the World Cup in 2007. Jake White rugby had its merits in that it was hard to lose if you had the right personnel in place to run the conservative strategy, but it was not a style that would win you a prize for good fellowship.
And 10 years on, the game has moved on. You have to be able to score tries as well as kick goals, but if you are going to be cavalier in your approach, you need the necessary skills.
I thought the Springboks against Australia were a little too helter-skelter about their approach. Running everything becomes as predictable as kicking everything.
The All Blacks have hoodwinked so many people into thinking that they are the most adventurous team on the planet, but the statistics will tell you that they kick more than any other team in world rugby. They take no chances and if nothing is on in their half, they kick intelligently, with a contestable kick that will give them a chance to get the ball back, or they probe for territory.
But, and it is big but, if they are in their own 22 and they spot a gap or an overlap, they will run at you and inevitably score. They score so many tries not because they have a devil-may-care attitude but because they are highly skilled, incredibly fit and utterly ruthless in exposing a crack in your defence.
And they are patient. So many teams have thought they were in the game against the All Blacks because there was not much of a points difference as the game approached the three-quarter mark, and suddenly the Kiwis have run in four or five tries. No other team can live with the All Blacks in the last 20 minutes because they run out of steam.
The Boks should be praised for their positive approach, but they need to understand that they can’t run the ball for the sake of it when their pack is being out-scrummed or they are battling in the line-outs. A back line that is running onto the ball at pace asks questions of the defence. A back line that is getting slow ball is at the mercy of the approaching defence and tends to move sideways.
It really is about decision-making in the heat of battle. If it is “on” then have the confidence to have a go, wherever you are on the field. But if it is not on, be patient.
The Boks need to calm down a touch on attack, they need to get their set pieces sorted out, vary their tactics, and then attack with venom and skill when the opportunities arise.