CAPE TOWN – It was the 34th minute of what had been a bone-crunching encounter up to then.
For all the Springboks’ honest endeavour – particularly in defence – they were still 8-3 behind against the All Blacks at Newlands, but they had put a few phases together by stretching the Kiwis from side to side, waiting for the gap up the middle perhaps.
But then scrumhalf Ross Cronjé – following coach Allister Coetzee’s instructions to the tee – launched yet another box kick. The Newlands crowd had had enough and booed, as they had become frustrated with yet more front-foot ball being kicked away, in just 34 minutes of rugby.
Quick possession is normally hard to come by against the world champions, so why would you just hand it back to them on a platter?
Cronjé is excellent at clearing the deck quickly, but is not a renowned kicker, and here was forced to kick more in one half than he may do in an entire Super Rugby season for the Lions.
The tactic wasn’t working, as all it did was deny the Boks opportunities to put the All Blacks under pressure with ball-in-hand.
As soon as they changed tack at the start of the second half and kept possession, it paid dividends as ironically Cronjé dotted down at the base of the upright to put the Boks into a 10-8 lead.
And that is how they did the hard yards to get the edge over Steve Hansen’s team throughout the second half, until that dreaded box kick made an unwelcome appearance in the 69th minute…
Cronjé put too much on to it and it went straight into the hands of David Havili, who went on a mesmerising run as he handed off Handré Pollard and Malcolm Marx, and slipped a silky back-handed offload to Damian McKenzie.
The All Black fullback wasn’t going to be outdone, leaving Francois Louw for dead near the halfway line and sprinting away for a sensational try. Remember, the Boks were leading 17-15 at the time – following Jean-Luc du Preez's try that also came as a result of ball-in-hand rugby – and suddenly they were 22-17 behind.
The game was gone, despite a late score from the outstanding Marx, and it was one that the Boks will feel they deserved to win in what turned out to be a 25-24 defeat.
Coach Coetzee himself admitted that the Boks had made inroads when they held on to the ball.
“Being able to play different game plans – a game plan with ball-in-hand doesn’t come overnight. But we feel it, and we know it. We know we had the All Blacks, with ball-in-hand, under pressure today,” he said.
“Our big boys were really good tonight, to the extent that we got on top of the New Zealand big boys.
“The big thing was ball-in-hand, and we did it and scored immediately at the start of the second half.
“Before halftime, it was probably the longest first half in the history of Test rugby that I’ve ever seen. So, it just shows that we didn’t just come to compete, but we actually wanted to win this game badly.”
But why then the obsession with box kicks?
“We got lots of reward from that, and it’s funny – the All Blacks also kicked the box kick, and they (the crowd) didn’t boo. So, we understand the game, and we know why we do it,” Coetzee said.
“The only thing is the one where we got punished (the McKenzie try), it should’ve been a contestable, and it was just slightly too long.
“Irrespective of what people see out there, we’ve got a plan, and it’s important to be able to shift between the way we want to play, and we’ve done that tonight.”
Coetzee often says after a defeat that his team will “learn lessons”, and he repeated that mantra on Saturday night, adding that “it’s tough lessons that we are learning, and at this point in time, we are prepared to do that”.
Let’s hope that the lesson this time around is that the Boks need to get “out of the box” on attack going forward if they want to knock over the All Blacks.