What a difference a play makes? At Ellis Park last week it was initially a case of collective horror. All the Rassie and Siya hype evaporated as England looked like they were going to eclipse even the two All Black hammerings of the previous era. It was terrifying. We started with vigour and enthusiasm but as in the past, our wide out defence was sadly pathetic. Two passes each time and suddenly England had simple overlaps and three tries on the board.
I watched from behind the poles and it was oh so simple. Our pillar defenders were too close in and as soon as straightening and good passes put England wide our midfield was caught in two minds. It was a slaughter in the making. Then little Faf with the big heart scored that marvellous close in try and altitude and attitude did the rest. Had he not made that play who knows what would have happened? We nearly blew it in the end but hung on and all was rosy again. Phew!
Then, in Bloemfontein it all started in exactly the same way. As Eddie Jones said, it was like watching the same horror movie twice. For the Boks the opening was just as bad as in the first Test. In fact it was worse because surely corrective action should have been taken. When the ball went wide we were again like under elevens and England made hay. Then, thankfully, we got into a groove and won well in the end. Two for two. The series in the bag. So where does it leave us?
Watching Ireland and the All Blacks gives us some clues. They have the most settled squads and the best coaches in the world at present. They are one and two by miles. Watching the Irish defend in Melbourne was a thing of beauty. Every player looks so confident in his duties and the rest is just effort. Wide or narrow and the Irish players slip into the practiced and agreed pattern and the danger is nullified. It is the same with the Kiwis. Regardless of the personnel involved you can see their defensive pattern is ingrained. They won fairly easily without even playing well. In fact France deserve all sorts of praise for competing so well with fourteen men. Yes, mistakes were made by both winning sides but even a casual perusal of the games shows that they are further down the rugby evolutionary path than we are. The World Cup is next year and this is the problem. We have fiddled for two years while Rome was burning and the question is, can we make up for lost time? You see, it is all about time.
There is much to be optimistic about. Selection has been bold and based on performance, both here and abroad. Willie, Faf and Duane look better players than they ever were and, along with the Beast, provide much needed experience. Also some of the youngsters have been sensational! Our two wings just need more ball to shine and RG Snyman gives us a set of locks, when they are all fit, that can match the world. We can do serious line-out damage. Clearly leadership and captaincy is healthy as evidenced by two big comebacks. Last year we would have lost both games.
So, what is needed?
We need to settle our defence urgently. It is so vital and so difficult to get right because it is not, as in the old days, just about tackling. The good sides now play like squeezeboxes in attack. They hit you hard narrow and then stretch it wide. Add to this foot passing to wings and high bombs and chips into space and you have a whole range of options. In addition the All Blacks have Sonny Bill’s legacy of off-loading and the magical feet of McKenzie, the Smiths and Milner-Skudder in their quivers and so you start to see the problem. Beauden Barrett conducts his dangerous orchestra and can cause havoc with his own running. Defending now needs intelligence and instant decision making even more than attacking does. It usually rests with one of two players in the line who read situations and call defensive shots. Look at Sexton for Ireland. He rules in defence and attack. When to rush with extreme line speed and when to drift and spread? Those decisions need total confidence in the players inside, outside and covering behind. That does not come quickly. It is earned over countless games and training sessions. It becomes a way of life.
Ideally you need a defensive general and an attacking one. I have never met De Allende or Am. Both possess strengths but do they have the ability to make those instant decisions? If not they need to be replaced and quickly. Handre Pollard is coming along nicely and seems well equipped for serious decision making. We need players who can make defensive decisions instantly and a team that can react and carry out the options. If you cannot defend well you can never beat the best.
I seem to be alone in worrying about our scrummaging. It seems inconsistent. At times we look capable of destroying the best but sometimes we seem to lose it. Our scrum needs more consistency. Our breakdown play is improving as is our discipline.
We have the players to win the next World Cup. There were times on Saturday when wave after wave of green jerseys played like the Boks when they ruled the rugby world. We need to tick the boxes in defence and attack that give us the ammunition and options to deal with all circumstances. Then it becomes simply a case of choosing tactics to defeat the opposition. Then it becomes a game of the mind because the action is ingrained and automatic. Then we need to get more and more players capable of stepping up to the plate when needed without weakening the collective.
Do we have the guts or the dedication to schedule the maximum time needed to cram four years’ learning into a year? Because that is what is needed. That is Rassie’s challenge. That is where we stand.