Epiphany difficult to pinpoint
The Boks have shed their ball-kicking skin and are intent on playing a new game of running the ball. It’s proven to be a winning move
TThis season’s international rugby campaign so far has been much like coach Heyneke Meyer’s first two years in charge – the Springboks were right up there at No 2 in the world, but were still given to playing a stodgy, risk-free game in which kicking the ball seemed to be their first option. And then something changed. The Springboks transformed, they started to run the ball, and the metamorphosis was completed at Ellis Park last weekend when they staved off a run of five successive defeats to finally give Meyer his first win over the All Blacks.
Up to the impressive surge against the Wallabies and the All Blacks in the past two home tests, it had not been an impressive or confidence-boosting year for the Boks.
They were extremely lucky to beat Wales by a point in Mbombela when a late penalty try went their way, they struggled against Argentina in a downpour at Loftus in August, and in the return game they seemed to be headed for defeat against the Pumas when the moment became too big for the Argentinians.
Their first match on tour down under turned sour when a dreadful mistake by Morné Steyn cost them a win over Australia and, in Wellington, the All Blacks were stronger at the end to win a game the Boks could have won. But the moment critique occurred in the 35th minute of this match. Scrum half Ruan Pienaar was seriously injured when team-mate Duane Vermeulen’s foot, as he was swung in a tackle, struck his knee.
Pienaar was replaced by Francois Hougaard, but there was no immediate indication of any change of approach as the new scrum half persisted in putting boot to ball. But, like a Highveld storm, there was something building on the horizon. Against Australia at Newlands, the Boks suddenly began moving the ball and the lightning hit in the last 10 minutes as they scored three tries to lash the Wallabies.
Hougaard was again a busy, bustling ball of energy as he sent the Wallabies plenty of posers; Pollard had clearly been instructed to have a go, Lambie did the same and the rest of the backs revelled in the new tactics. And, finally, Ellis Park provided proof that the Boks were shedding their constrictive skin and striking out on a new, bold approach.