Opinion: South Africa strength can expose New Zealand’s weakness in Rugby Championship openers

Jon Cardinelli

The Springboks must follow Ireland’s set-piece lead when they host the All Blacks in the double-header next month, writes Jon Cardinelli.

The July internationals produced some unforgettable moments for the rugby romantics.

Wayne Pivac’s side beat the Boks in the second Test of the three-game series to become the first Welsh side to win on South African soil. A week later, Ireland went one better to complete a monumental series victory in New Zealand.

These results will echo across the ages. History will remember these Welsh and Irish players for their groundbreaking achievements.

In the context of the 2022 season, the results in the July internationals have challenged widely held perceptions about the Test rugby pecking order.

Northern hemisphere on top

France and Ireland are the best teams on the planet. It’s no longer a northern hemisphere hypothesis, but a universal fact.

The Boks and England are gathering momentum, though, and bear watching in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup.

The All Blacks, however, have fallen off a cliff.

Since Ian Foster took the reins from Steve Hansen in 2020, New Zealand have recorded significant losses to Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Ireland and France. They made history this past Saturday when they became only the third All Blacks side to lose a three-Test series in New Zealand.

Will that loss to Ireland mark the nadir of the All Blacks’ nightmare? Or is there more pain in the post?

New Zealand certainly has the players and structures to turn things around. And yet, one wonders whether the current group will bounce back in the space of a few weeks.

The All Blacks will travel to South Africa for a double-header against the Boks. Unless they halt their current slide, they will lose their grip on the Freedom Cup, the Rugby Championship title and possibly even the Bledisloe Cup.

The All Blacks forwards were outmuscled and out-thought in the second and third Tests against Ireland. World-class locks such as Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick had no answer to the Irish lineout or maul.

The recent performances in New Zealand will have been noted by a Bok side that is desperate to prove a point against their traditional rivals.

This Bok group has achieved a great deal over the past four years, winning the Rugby Championship, the World Cup, and a series against the British & Irish Lions. This year, they will be gunning for two wins against the All Blacks, and ultimately the Freedom Cup – a title they last held in 2009.

Some critics suggested that the Boks and All Blacks were in similarly precarious positions following their respective losses to Wales and Ireland in the second Test of each series. The key difference, of course, is that Bok coach Jacques Nienaber made 19 changes for that second Test in Bloemfontein in order to give his fringe players an opportunity.

Some might say that the gamble backfired, with the Boks recording a historic loss to Wales at home. And yet, Nienaber got some answers regarding his squad depth. Some of these players will feature in the coming Rugby Championship, and possibly at the 2023 World Cup.

Many have bemoaned the Boks’ attacking performances, and the number of opportunities that were spurned in the decider in Cape Town. While the criticism of the backline is somewhat justified, more should be made about the Boks’ clinical set-piece and well-executed kicking strategy.

Wales competed well at the lineouts and had some success at stopping the Bok maul in the first two Tests. The half-backs kicked accurately, and the chasers put the Boks under pressure in the air. Ultimately, they provided the Boks with the ideal opportunity to hone their traditional strengths.

All Blacks struggling in the fundamentals

Will the All Blacks provide the same sort of resistance? It may seem ridiculous to compare Wales to New Zealand, but going by recent form, the Dragons are a greater threat than the All Blacks at the lineout and in the air.

The Boks engaged with Wales in those contests, and were forced to problem-solve and improve in those departments.

By contrast, the All Blacks failed to match Ireland at the lineout and maul. They have reason to be concerned ahead of the next war of attrition.

The Boks will grow stronger as the season unfolds. Pieter-Steph du Toit is two games into his comeback from injury, and is getting back to his best as a lineout option and ball-carrier. Duane Vermeulen looks set to return from his own ailment, and will boost the Boks in areas like the maul and breakdown.

Jaden Hendrikse and Faf de Klerk are fighting for the right to wear the No 9 jersey – which is a healthy situation for the Boks. Handré Pollard has shaken off the rust and is starting to find his groove at Test level, while Damian Willemse has proved that he can slot in at fly-half when the situation demands it.

A mistake by Pollard in the latter stages cost the Boks the result when they faced the All Blacks in Townsville last year. The Boks were more clinical in the subsequent Test on the Gold Coast. Looking back at the double-header, you could say that they came within one play of winning the Freedom Cup.

This season, the Boks will have a golden opportunity to realise that objective. They will enjoy home advantage in the two Tests against the All Blacks, and they will be favourites to boss the set-pieces and kicking game.

The latter statement is made with the All Blacks’ recent regression in mind. If the Boks exploit those set-piece weaknesses to maximum effect, they will win the Freedom Cup and take control of the Rugby Championship.

READ MORE: South Africa see off stubborn Wales to earn series triumph