Cape Town — The recent Six Nations clash between Ireland and France captured the imagination of most rugby observers for the high-octane action, but one man who is not getting carried away by the game is Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber.
The Irish and Les Bleus loom as the major threats to the Boks in the defence of their Rugby World Cup crown on French soil in September and October.
The South Africans open their RWC campaign against Scotland on September 10 at Stade Velodrome in Marseille, and then take on Ireland in the probable Pool B decider on September 23 (having faced Romania in between) at the Stade de France in Paris.
They round off their pool fixtures against Tonga on October 1 in Marseille, and then it’s onto the quarter-finals, where it will be either France or the All Blacks on October 14 or 15.
The Boks are currently busy with a three-week camp in Cape Town, where 14 players have gathered during a mid-season break from playing in order to recharge their batteries, get in some technical details and put in the hard yards with their fitness before starting the second part of their franchise campaigns.
The first Test of the year is in the Rugby Championship against the Wallabies on July 8 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
But Nienaber and the rest of the management team will be keeping a close eye on the ongoing Six Nations to see what Scotland, Ireland and France in particular are able to produce.
The Bok boss has already got some insight into the Irish and French from the 32-19 victory for Andy Farrell’s team in Dublin on February 11, where the home side were lauded for keeping the ball alive and scoring four tries.
Farrell said he was “unbelievably proud” of the performance, adding that “the fight and the spirit that we had was astonishing at times” as Ireland once again announced themselves as genuine World Cup contenders.
One of the most talked-about issues afterwards was the ball-in-play time, which was an incredible 46 minutes and 10 seconds. All-action matches normally result in a time of above 35 minutes, so it was a remarkable effort from the two teams.
But the devil is in the detail for the studious Nienaber, and during a press conference this week, he suggested the Boks are not going to get caught up in the hype surrounding Ireland especially, and France going into the World Cup.
“There was this big thing about the ball-in-play time between Ireland and France… it just boils down to the tactics on the day. The average ball-in-play time in a Test depends (on) if it’s a massive kicking game…
“I will put it in perspective. Let’s say in that specific game, there was about 79 kicks, so the ball-in-play time was high – but purely because of the kicks.
“If you think about it, the ball was kicked for over a kilometre by both teams, so although sometimes people get the idea that yes, this was an exceptional game of rugby, but was it an exceptional attacking, ball-in-play game of rugby where the guys really took each other on?
“The ball travelled for two kilometres through the air, so people were watching the ball. Obviously that is ball-in-play time. If you take the average of the ball flying through the air and the guy catching it and running with it in possession for three seconds before he kicks it back…
“If you take that as an eight-second sequence, then that is 10-and-a-half minutes, just the ball (being kicked and caught).”
The Boks showed in the 2019 World Cup semi-final against Wales that they are well capable of engaging in a ding-dong kicking battle with the opposition and not get seduced into playing into their hands by launching counter-attacks and getting turned over at the breakdowns.
But equally, Nienaber confirmed this week that Siya Kolisi’s team cannot be “arrogant” in thinking that their 2019 game-plan will suffice at the 2023 World Cup, adding that they have to continue to evolve and be more creative on attack.
Part of developing that side of their game will be to improve their fitness — which was one of their strengths in Japan four years ago — and Bok head of athletic performance, Andy Edwards, agreed that the demands are slightly different in 2023.
“Rugby is rugby, and with the physical demands, some of it is measurable, and some of it is not. Naturally, through the evolution of development systems and how early they get exposed — and maybe some law changes influence certain types of things,” Edwards said this week.
“But at the end of the day, the physical side of it doesn’t change too much. It’s a brutal sport. We measure a few things that we’ve actually tracked back from the last World Cup to where we sit now, and we’ve seen that increase in terms of the demands.
“But in terms of our overall physical measures that are monitored — GPS is an obvious one — there hasn’t been too much change. A game is a game… conditions, who you are playing, styles of play, all have big influences on those objective markers that you might take.
“On the whole, I can’t sit here and say it’s changed completely. But there are some things that stand out.”