Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the second edition of a series of columns.
Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie shares his thoughts on the Rugby Championship in the second instalment of a series of exclusive columns for Planet Rugby.
Who said first-phase attacks were dead?
The first weekend of the new four-nation Championship of the Southern Hemisphere was neither a spectacle for the weekend rugby enthusiast nor a study in tactical game execution and precision.
To be honest, it was messy and unattractive rugby and the results of the two encounters were as predictable as the game plans and domination of the two winning sides. The scores in fact do not reflect how far superior the All Blacks are in their execution of their practiced first-phase moves and their domination at the breakdowns and the Springboks gave the Argentineans a lesson in playing their own game plan.
The most outstanding observation from my point of view was the All Blacks' ability to penetrate the Wallaby defence from first-phase moves, specifically from scrums. Strike moves have become a forgotten art in the modern game and like most things if you start to believe – and even if you coach players – that the first-phase play is just to set up the next phase, they will never believe they can utilise all the available space to get behind enemy lines. The overriding consideration when coaches plan moves these days are the numbers and running lines of support players that will be available to support the ball carrier at the first breakdown. The difference with the All Blacks is that they trust firstly the ball carrier to break the defensive line to go beyond the advantage line and that the player will be strong and intelligent enough to negotiate the defensive threats until his support arrives.
South Africa can learn a lot from this mind set, because I believe they have the same platform available from the scrum which can provide predictable right shoulders to launch multiple attacking options from the back of the scrum. However in recent history Pierre Spies have become extremely predictable and utterly ineffectual with his breaks from the back and no enterprise has been shown from consecutive coaches to explore interplay options with his 9 or 12. I was hoping that this would be an area where Heyneke Meyer would inspire some change, but it has not been the case and unfortunately Keegan Daniel did not manage to impress either at number eight.
The player with the strength and feeling for the game situation is Duane Vermeulen, but he will still need to prove he is fit enough for the international stage. I would be interested to see if Marcell Coetzee could not be a stand-in from the base of the scrum on attacking ball, because he is by far the most explosive offensive ball carrier in the Springbok team.
Conversely the Aussies are going to suffer even greater humiliation in the second Bledisloe Cup game in Auckland, because their loose forwards and backline players will again have to scramble and prop up gaps after scrums that result from having your loose forwards turned away from the direction of attack to their left off All Black right-shoulder scrums.
The bottom line is they can't fix the fundamental problems in their frontrow in a week and it is clear that it will take a miracle for Robbie Deans to remain in his position after the Championship, except if he can pull off away victories in Argentina and South Africa and finish a strong 2nd behind the All Blacks.
In his defence, you can argue that Deans did not receive a group of players that were high on confidence, nor were they performing like world beaters during the Super Rugby campaign. But less talented Wallaby sides have pulled off historic home victories in Bledisloe Cup campaigns in the past through sheer will and determination – especially by keeping unforced errors to a minimum.
David Pocock will be sorely missed in the Herculean task awaiting the Aussies to stay in the race for the Cup. Even worse for Ben Robinson and his mates is that they are going to see double this weekend with both Frank brothers playing! I predict a lot of infringements at scrum time (even more than their current 31 percent), because they will revert to the old Wallaby tactic of diving in, trying to force the head of the scrum to collapse and put the pressure on the New Zealanders to keep it up and hope for a 50/50 call from the referee. I hope by this time they would have figured out who the culprits are.
Although South Africa can expect a backlash from the Pumas in Mendoza, they do not have much to fear from a team that is playing pretty much the same game plan with less precision and which lacks their sheer physical size, both in the pack and in their backline. The Boks are going to regret the fact that they did not show more enterprise with ball in hand and missed a vital opportunity to collect a bonus point on home soil, which I believe the All Blacks and Wallabies will both achieve. The route the Bok management have chosen for this team depends heavily on Francois Hougaard's pink boots and maestro Steyn's tactical kicking. But make no mistake, Mendoza will be a different game and one thing the Boks can be sure of is that the 'Gary Owens' from Hernandez will hang a bit longer and the chase will be sharper and more committed.
Interestingly, very few of the Springboks have played rugby in Mendoza before and I can attest to the fact that it is the closest thing to running out into a massive bullring. The Pumas will always ensure you pay your dues physically when you battle them in their backyard. With the untimely injuries to both Bismarck du Plessis and Pierre Spies, the Springboks are suddenly in a predicament where they are short on experience in the pack for the away legs, because they have effectively lost the experience of a 100 Test caps between them, without even considering the international experience lost through the retirement of the Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Although it will not be that critical against Argentina this coming weekend, it will most certainly be a factor Down Under in the coming weeks and I would have hoped that they would have used these two Test matches to prepare for the challenge ahead.
The loss of Bismarck du Plessis (and I have to say that Adriaan Strauss had an exceptional game) for the rest of the year will force the Springbok management to reconsider their ideological stance on the inclusion of a fetcher. Once again this will not be critical this weekend, but against the All Blacks they will probably need two flankers playing to the ball and disrupting the momentum of their attack.
In conclusion, I think the best way to contrast the class and execution of the two victorious teams' backlines after the first weekend is the performances of their respective full-backs (which is an absolutely crucial position in today's Test arena, both on attack and defence). Israel Dagg was in a class of his own and displayed the greatest rugby skill of all