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Matt Pearce in NZ: Why the Boks have a real chance of beating All Blacks

LONDON — Rugby professor Matthew Pearce is in Auckland ahead of the weekend’s clash between South Africa’s rejuvenated Springboks and rugby’s World Champion All Blacks. When he was there for SuperSport a year ago, the ace commentator and pundit admits, the Boks were no-hopers. But he’s picked up a very different mood in the camp this year. And having gone undefeated in 2017, there’s also a belief among Allister Coetzee’s young lions that they can record SA’s first test win on NZ soil since 2009. Pearce won’t give any odds but reckons there is a “real” chance the tourists will find the necessary chinks in the All Black armour – specifically the Boks’s proven ability to score tries, which is the only way to beat the world champions in their own back yard. – Alec Hogg

Joining us from Auckland, NZ, where he is covering the Rugby Championship on behalf of SuperSport, is our rugby professor, Matthew Pearce. Matt, before we talk about the big game coming up what’s your take on the Springbok draw in Australia?

Alec, thanks for having me. It was an interesting game in many ways. I think there was frustration in the first half at some of the execution of the Springbok’s play. They certainly would admit to not having kicked particularly well. There was quite a bit of rain just prior to the kick off, which didn’t last during the game but it was a very hard playing surface so, it became very skiddy with the rain and that required them to change their tactics a little bit in their first half. I think they would be the first to admit that they didn’t execute particularly well in the first half, either in the kicking game or in building through sufficient phases to create pressure on the Wallabies.

They didn’t get any rhythm to their game. They scored a very good try off a turnover ball but that was about it for the first half and I think they were probably a little bit fortunate to only be trailing by 3 points at the break. The Wallabies had certainly, the better of the opportunities in that first half but the second half for me, showed what this team could be capable of, going forward. They changed their tactics. They executed far better in those aspects of the game that I’ve spoken about already. Elton Jantjies took far more control of the game. He played the territory well, and at the end of the all I think Eben Etzebeth summed it up by saying they were disappointed to get a draw.

MTN is the new headline sponsor for the Springboks.
MTN is the new headline sponsor for the Springboks.

Now, what that says compared to the Springboks of a year ago is that they’ve built a significant amount of resolve and resilience. To go 10 points down, away from home in a Rugby Championship game, there won’t have been many instances that I can think of in the past where a SA team has gone behind by that number of points and has come back to take the lead, which they did by 23 – 20. So, I think there was a general feeling of one got away but certainly 2 points better than none, ahead into Auckland.

What is the mood like in the dressing room after a game like that?

Well, the dressing room I wouldn’t know, that’s sacrosanct. We don’t get to go in there but I think to speak generally, around the mood in the camp, very good, very positive. Compared to being around the squad a year ago – it’s like being around a different rugby team and that’s down to a number of things. Not least the time that they had to prepare together, as a squad this year, which they didn’t have last year. The time they spent together in a pre-season camp in Plettenberg Bay, which they talk about a lot where they just got to know each other a lot better and what made each other tick. Finding out more about their families and getting to understand the person next to in a team helps to create an environment in which you play with more purpose for each other as a team. That bond is very tangible amongst the squad and it reflects in the way they play. In the way, they celebrate the little victories within a game. I’m sure you would have noticed that when a try is scored or a turnover is won, or a scrum is won on an opposition put in or a scrum penalty is won. Everyone is in to celebrate together so, it’s about celebrating a series of small victories on a path to hopefully, bigger ones when the final result comes and the results are there to see for that. They still haven’t lost in 2017. This time last year they were in a very different mental space.

The impact of Brendan Venter obviously, in the UK, he’s made a huge impact wherever he’s gone. Are you seeing this already within the Springbok camp?

Franco Smith. Photo courtesy of Twitter @SuperSportTV

Alec, I don’t think it’s just Brendan. Of course, Brendan has an impact. Franco Smith likewise has had an impact on the attack. I think it’s more than just their roles as defence and attack coaches. I think one of the key things is that both of them, both Brendan and Franco as what I recall Allister Coetzee to say, ‘are senior lieutenants now, along with the likes of Matthew Proud for doing the scrumming and Johan van Graan playing a very important role across a lot of what the forwards do. I think importantly, both Brendan and Franco are head coaches so, when they’re having a discussion with the head coach it’s a holistic discussion. People aren’t talking about working in their own specialist silo. They’re actually keeping various aspects of the game in mind but how it fits into the overall player.

So, we’ve seen the Springboks score a number of fantastic tries. Going into the game against the Wallabies, if you take 3 tests against France and the 2 against Argentina – averaging more than 4 tries per game. They scored 4 in all of the test matches against France, and 4 in the first against Argentina, and 5 in the second, away from home and in Salta. I think there’s an acknowledgement that with that attack comes a certain amount of risk but as we’ve seen with the number one side in the world the old cliché is that to beat the All Blacks you must score tries. They’re only too happy if you kick 3-point penalties when they infringe in their own half because they’ll kick-off deep into your half and make you work really hard to get back into their territory again, and they’ll back themselves to score tries.

I think in trying to ascend on the number one spot in the world and to emulating and hopefully over taking that number one side in the world, you have to be balanced in your approach. Yes, you need to defend exceptionally well, as Springbok sides have generally done in the past, apart from last year when they were certainly leaky but you’ve also got to embrace the ability to play what’s in front of you. I think probably the best example we’ve seen of that this season, amongst a number of examples, was that brilliant try scored in Salta by Siya Kolisi, which started under the Springbok’s posts with a turnover. They had the confidence, despite being a relatively inexperienced team, to spot that there was space out to the left to exploit it. To bring it back towards the middle of the field. Some beautiful support lines and a real confidence in the way they put that counterattack together.

So, Franco on the attack side. Brendan on the defensive side but here are 2 guys who, as I said right at the start of my answer, are head coaches. They’re a proper source of support to the Springbok head coach and, very importantly for me, they also played for the Springboks. They had a real passion for the jersey and what it meant to them as players, and they can carry that through into their coaching roles as well.

Matt, you described the side as still relatively inexperienced. On a scale of 1 – 10, how much more potential would you give them? Would they be ranking at the moment, at 6 out of a possible 10 or higher than that?

It’s probably not for me to decide that but I think of you’d ask them they would say, and perhaps not in as many words. They probably wouldn’t rank it in terms of a number but they know there’s a huge amount of room for improvements. That for me, is a positive. That constant acknowledgement that they are on a path to something bigger and better. If you look at the first test match of the season, yes, it was against a France side. It was in a little bit of a disarray, they had their first choice flyhalf unavailable but mostly that was a team that did pretty well in the Six Nations. They lost 2 games in the Six Nations narrowly, away to England and away to Ireland, who finished first and second in the Six Nations.

They came out to SA, yes, at the end of a long season but in that first test a few people realised how much pressure the Springboks were under, regardless of the nature of the opposition. You had a coach who was under pressure. You had a bunch of new players. You had a new captain and yet, even in that environment, there were 4 debutants in the backline alone, the scrumhalf and the entire back three played their first ever international, in the first test against France. All those players, now the back three have played all 6 test matches so far. I’m sure the 3 of them will start again. Ross Cronje has missed a couple of the games due to injury so, you’ve got 4 of your 7 backline players, who are in their first season of test rugby.

You’ve got Elton Jantjies at 10, who’s really been given his first opportunity to cement down that pivotal position in the backline. Then you’ve got Jan Serfontein at 32 test matches. You’ve got a player who’s comfortably your most experienced player in the backline so, any player and/or any coach will tell you the value and the need for experience at this level of the game. So, in the number of test caps alone, the growth curve is a significant one for this team.

So, the big game. You’re in Auckland right now. They’re not playing at Eden Park. I suppose, which is mentally at least, helpful but are the ready yet? Are the Springboks ready to beat the All Blacks?

Well, just to talk about the stadium for a second. Yes, it must be an advantage, (not playing at Eden Park), the All Blacks have not lost a test match at Eden Park since 1994. SA’s most recent best result there was a draw in 1994, and it was the French who beat the All Blacks there, all those years ago. So, yes, being at North Harbour stadium, in Albany, which has quite a strong SA community as well, up on the North shore. It’s certainly an advantage over playing the All Blacks at Eden Park.

However, before that Lion’s victory against the All Blacks, they hadn’t lost at home since the Springboks beat them back in 2009 so, winning anywhere in NZ, against a team of this quality is extremely hard. I think the important thing is that this time a year ago if you had asked me the same question, when I was sitting in a hotel in Christchurch, ahead of that game. If I had looked at myself in the mirror and put my hand on my heart I would have had to say, ‘I honestly don’t think we’ve got a chance.’ But this year there is a chance, there is certainly a chance. I think the All Blacks have shown in their test matches against the British and Irish Lions in the second test of the Lions Cup Series in Dunedin against the Wallabies, who I really felt should have won that test. They left a lot of points out there by the boot and eventually lost by 6, and indeed in New Plymouth.

Last weekend the Argentinians had them rattled for a while. Now, Allister Coetzee has been quick to point out that yes, they have shown some uncharacteristic signs of vulnerability but yet, as an opponent you have to be at your very-very best to exploit those little vulnerabilities. You know they’ve been hit by some injuries. They’ve lost a couple of very experienced prop-forwards, one loose-head one tight-head. The Springbok scrum has been going very well but sad that they’ve lost 2 tight-heads this season already as well, in Frans Malherbe and then on Saturday, Coenie Oosthuizen breaking his arm against the Wallabies. They also lost Jaco Kriel today, which you might not have heard just yet but he’s had to go home with a damaged shoulder. That’s a big loss. He was a big part of the performance against the Wallabies at the weekend. But yes, there’s a chance, which is encouraging. You can see it in the way the players are training. They’re embracing the challenge of being here. They’re not fearful of it and they know that if they give of their very-very best, they’re in with a shout.

So, with Jaco Kriel out and Coenie Oosthuizen you’re going to have 2 changes anyway. Who’s likely to take their place?

Yes, tight-head prop we don’t know just yet, Trevor Nyakane was on the bench last week against the Wallabies. He also sustained a very bad laceration on his cheek, towards the end of that game, which brought Coenie back on, and no one knew that he had a broken arm but he’d broken arm it before he went back on as a blood replacement, which says a lot for the character of the man. He made a couple of more carries and a few more tackles as well, with a broken arm.

Incredible.

So, it will be between Trevor Nyakane to start, also Ruan Dreyer, who did start the first test against France at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg. He performed admirably in that test. He was very strong for the Lions. He had a disappointing Super Rugby final but if he gets a nod it’s an opportunity to get one back over Wyatt Crockett potentially, he looks likely to start at loose-head for the All Blacks.

Then in the back row with Kriel gone I can’t see the Springboks doing anything other than including Jean-Luc du Preez at blindside-flank, to go along with Uzair Kassim at 8 and Siya Kolisi at 6. Then your decision on the bench is do you play Pieter-Steph du Toit as a loose-forward replacement, with Louis de Jager covering the second row? Or do you hand a potential test debut to Jean-Luc du Preez’s twin brother Dan, who hasn’t been with the squad throughout this Rugby Championship? I know what I would do. It would be Pieter-Steph du Toit every day for me, just more experience. Yes, he’s playing potentially, out of position but I thought he played like a loose-forward in the lock-position on Saturday, some wonderful pick-and-goes through the middle. He showed some good pace. He’s fit, and he’s hungry for rugby again.

I think Franco Mostert was rested for the Australia game for good reason. He’s played an enormous amount of rugby, more than any other forward this season because he played all the games for the Lions and all the test matches, and his work rate is quite something but they felt he needed a rest. But with that they would have ensured him and the rest of the team very openly that he was going to start against the All Blacks, alongside Eben Etzebeth. So, that’s the way I see it, Jean-Luc du Preez in at flank. Franco Mostert returning to the starting line-up, and then Louis de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit on the bench.

And what about the All Blacks?

Well, it’s interesting. They’ve lost some good props. There’s also talk of what do they do with this Vaea Fifita, who made such an outstanding debut against the Argentinians and scored a great try and was involved in so much of what they did. He was effectively, there because they were resting someone else so, they’ve got some selection decisions to make as well. They’ve rested a few players actually ahead of that Argentinian game, including Sam Whitelock in the second-row. They rested Aaron Smith at scrum-half, Ben Smith, Rieko Loane – they also rested so, they’ll all be back. I expect them to try and test our back 3 pretty aggressively, with some aerials and some good kick chase lines.

I think what the Wallabies showed in Dunedin is that there are some kinks that one can exploit, especially around the fringes of the ruck. Aaron Smith is found wanting on defence a few times and they’ve also got some young players. Regardless of how they’ve been brought through the system, finding their way in international rugby and with that comes the fact that they will be playing the Springboks for the first time. Regardless of what anyone says, just by historical records alone, SA is NZ’s most respected opponent so, there’ll be some of these young All Blacks as well, who haven’t played a Springbok test before. There’ll be nerves on both sides, certainly, and at home they’re always going to be the favourites. They’ve got the record to back that tag up but, yes, look they’re never going to put out a poor side.

Matt, what do we look for then, to summarise? What do we look for when watching the game on the weekend?

I think, to use a well-worn cliché in international rugby, it all starts up front and that’s where it’s going to have to start for SA. I honestly believe, even with the loss of a couple of props, we can certainly gain parity, if not a little bit of dominance up front. The lineout is going to be key. Whitelock and Retallick are just outstanding in that department of the game. They keep things fairly simple but their accuracy of execution is quite something.

Having said that, the Springboks did really well to disrupt the Wallaby lineout badly. The Wallabies came into that test match with a 100% lineout success rate over 2 games against NZ and one against Argentina, and they were found wanting so, they lost 5 lineouts on their own ball. So, they may be vulnerable there, although the Springboks will face a much sterner test at lineout time but with Jean-Luc du Preez likely to be included, in place of Jaco Kriel, that’s an additional lineout option. If you look around the Springbok team, you’ve got Etzebeth, probably Mostert, Kolisi, du Preez and Kassim, who are all really good lineout options. You can look for a lot of variation there. You can look for SA to drive off that lineout success regularly. I’m sure they’ll be having a word with the referee around potential illegal stopping of that maul because it’s something that the All Blacks have proved to be quite adept at in recent years so, it’s got to start there and you need a front foot platform.

One of the problems in Perth last Saturday was that a number of scrums in the first half collapsed in the front row but the ball was on its way to the 8th man’s feet, so the referee just said, ‘play on.’ Then when the scrum stayed up in the second half you got a real look at how dominant that Springbok scrum could be and was in the second half. They won a number of scrum penalties when the scrum didn’t go down. In that situation when you’re dominating the set-piece you’re either winning penalties that will allow you to kick territory or you’re playing off an advancing pack of forwards, with a defensive line that, by definition, is in retreat and that’s a critical advantage at this level of the game.

So, the Springboks haven’t won in NZ since 2009. If you were a betting man what kind of odds would you be happy to take?

That’s such a difficult question because I’m not a betting man. You’ll have to ask you mate, Bob Skinstad because he was with me in 2009, when we last won a test and that was in Hamilton. That was one of the best Springbok teams ever to come to NZ and they managed to scrape in by 3 points, 32 – 29. I’d love to say, if you’re going to ask me for odds, I’d love to be able to say that the Springboks are worth a punt and they probably are worth a punt but are they the favourites? No, they’re not but as I’ve said a couple of times during our chat, the difference in mindset, and attitude, and the belief that they have a chance – compared to last year, is really quite something.

That was Matthew Pearce of SuperSport, who was talking to us from Auckland, NZ. He’s going to be on SuperSport for the Springbok – All Black encounter over the weekend.

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