Competing Transformations - An Inquiry in Thin Air?
The more interesting and astute question coming out of the first Test is whether South Africa may, in fact, be on a positive pathway back to prominence among top-tier rugby nations. Since 2009, when they briefly supplanted the All Blacks at the top of the world rankings, the Springboks have been well adrift of traditional, lofty standards and expectations.
A second question, one of intense focus and discussion in England, is whether Eddie Jones and his men have lost the plot, or if the side can right the ship and continue building toward 2019. [Set aside the overly-narrow remit with which both Jones and the RFU start every conversation - Jones was hired to win the World Cup. A worthy goal, but always more aspirational than realistic, if one considers rugby history honestly.]
Consider the second question first. While I have been as direct as most in posing questions for Jones and England, my response after their narrow loss at Ellis Park is to give Jones some space and a little leeway - at least through the upcoming second test and likely the series.
England forwards, and front five in particular, were comprehensively outplayed by the Springbok pack, and yet England lost by only three at South Africa’s fortress. At altitude. England ably scored 39 points. If we were told before the game that Billy would be anonymous, Robshaw again as limited as he looked against the Barbarians, and Itoje and Mako would be notable more for their ill-discipline than their effectiveness, we would anticipate a scoreline much, much worse than the one we saw.
Jones spoke to Chris Jones after the match, and emphasised individual errors and lack of discipline as the key factors in the loss, and this time I think he is right. Jones dismissed altitude as a factor, but evidence suggests altitude-amplified fatigue had a role in error rate and penalties. Even so, Jones is not wrong. Consider South Africa’s first three tries, which salvaged what could have been a miserable day for the men in green.
- First try - Itoje goes mental and completely botches his defensive role at the side of the ruck, handing de Klerk an easy score.
- Second try - While Elliot Daly’s error was poor, Mike Brown’s decision to come in on defence when Slade did not need him opened up the sideline for Nkosi. If Brown stays put out wide and gives some ground, Nkosi likely would not have been in position to pounce on Daly’s blunder.
- Third try - Similarly, Johnny May came in off his wing on the other side, opening up space for the interchange needed for Nkosi to score his second try. To be fair, the Boks may have finished this one off no matter what, given the flow of the game, but May could just have easily taken Dyantyi into touch or harassed him into an error had he not hung himself out to dry through poor positioning. Instead, he made a good pass back inside to his fellow wing to score easily.
Four errors and England’s lead was gone. While the Springboks played an assured, excellent control game in the second half to extend and then hold their lead, things would have been very different if they still trailed by more than 10 points, which almost surely would have been the case without those mistakes.
In the Times on Monday, Owen Slot accurately described the way the game changed, but in his player ratings, he contradicts that clear vision to some degree. How is it possible to rate Mako with more than a middling rating? Mako’s negatives outweighed his normal attributes of work rate and ball-carrying. Same with Itoje. Just what he is thinking when he transgresses is beyond speculation, such is the absurd nature of those fouls. Rating Billy and Tom Curry the same glosses over the reality of seeing a 19-year-old as the most effective back row forward for England, by some distance. Also, Owen Farrell was about as anonymous as he could ever be, and yet he earns Captain’s credit. He was fine, but more is expected. And needed.
England almost certainly did not walk onto the pitch expecting to exploit the outside channels so early and easily. Some credit must be given to how well they responded to the opportunity. The entire backline was quite good on attack, something England have not been able to say much over the past, well, several years.
Finally, for the all the damage delivered during the Springbok and dominant play for much of the second half, England clawed back into the game and were threatening up to the end. The try May scored was excellent, and for me this game was May's best in the England jersey. The game did not end with England an abject failure. Rather, one had the sense something may be missing in terms of on-field leadership, a topic Jones himself raised before and during his tenure.
South Africans around the world must be breathing a sigh of relief. As difficult as the past several years have been for the Springboks, they may have needed this period. Transformation is incredibly difficult, and the possibility that future South African sides might be past the reflexive racial dynamics and truly inspire all young South Africans. We will see how the year progresses, and whether they build on the positives. They deserve credit for this win, more than England deserve scorn. They somehow reorganised themselves, took advantage of mistakes and turned scoring opportunities into points, and then absolutely starved England of possession for much of the second half. As captain, Kolisi rose to the historic occasion, by both turning around the team’s performance and leading on the pitch. Faf de Klerk was wonderful, as joyful to watch as he was effective in shaping the game. They are blooding new players, bringing back quality veterans in great form, and blending their renowned physicality with mobility and ball-skills.
England backs are not the reason England are struggling, though they still need to improve. When the pack creates a positive platform, Ford and Farrell are devastating. For all the reputed leadership Farrell brings, he does not always manage a game the way Sexton can, and he ought to be able to do that from 10 or 12. Losowski still merits a run at outside centre, and the outside defence needs fine-tuning. Finally, Brown’s try does not eliminate his weaknesses at wing. He played alright, but Jones has not given himself many options out wide.
Pollard is an upgrade at flyhalf. While deserving the chances he has had, Elton Jantjies has struggled to translate Super Rugby form to Test form. He takes the ball going forward, and makes a pedestrian midfield look functional and effective.
June 2018 Tests are NOT World Cup warmup matches - give emerging players a solid run, trial combinations, rest invaluable players. The other side of the coin can be seen in the Springbok wingers, who are going to command attention come the World Cup on this evidence.