Can Boks be perfect?

Dan Retief

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is now less than three months away and whenever the quadrennial tournament comes round the question is: can the Springboks win the Webb Ellis Cup?

With South Africa’s cricket in sackcloth and ashes and not much confidence in Bafana Bafana the focus has switched to whether, in Japan, the Boks can conquer the world.

As always the answer could either be a simple, “yes they can”, or boundlessly complicated. South Africa is good at rugby, if not in recent years, and contained in the raw material that coach Rassie Erasmus has to work with there is certainly the essence of a formidable combination.

Those who believe in the numerology will point out that the Springboks’ other two victories were 12 years apart (1995 and 2007) so the signs are good. Unfortunately, top-class sport does not work on mystical notions, it is all about a team being at its best, playing to the maximum limits of its ability for all the time and matches it takes.

And it is this aspect – consistent high quality of play and the ability to summon a combination of imagination and clinical precision at just the right moment – that all South African sides, hence the Springboks, lack.

Siya Kolisi’s men are capable of the perfect formula, but whether they can unfailingly conjure it to win all the little battles that add up to an 80-minute performance, over the course of a nine-week tournament, is doubtful.

This train of thought leads me to a moment and a memory of Duane Vermeulen being part of an extraordinary play, containing skill, guile and a break from character to win a match.

With five minutes to go in the quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup against Wales at Twickenham the Springboks were 18-19 down and seemingly headed out of the tournament; unable to break down dogged Welsh defence.

But off a strong, left-hand scrum close to the Welsh goal line, which wheeled right, Duane Vermeulen picked up and broke to the blindside. The Welsh flanker on that side had been compromised by the wheel and when Vermeulen was confronted by scrumhalf Lloyd Williams, wing Alex Cuthbert was drawn off his wing to assist with the tackle.

It was classic Vermeulen, the ultimate battering ram, but instead of his usual head-down surge, the No8 flicked the ball behind his back to Fourie du Preez who had looped around on the left, and the captain on the day scooted over in at the corner for the try that put the Boks into the last four.

There were two crucial elements in this important score. Vermeulen did something he was not known to do, thus catching the Welsh wanting, and the execution of the behind-the-back flip pass was perfect and straight to the hands of Du Preez.

Get it? Surprise and accuracy. The game is not called chess at full pace for nothing. There has to be strategy, clever innovation and perfect execution.

There’s that word again – perfect. One of the best sporting self-help books is called “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect” by sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella. In it he attempts to pacify the minds of his golfing clients by pointing out that a missed putt, a bad drive, a momentary lapse of concentration is not the end of the world.

It’s a treatise that has been helpful to many, also in other sports, but in the highly-charged world of a Rugby World Cup it doesn’t work like that.

The Rugby World Cup IS a game of perfect. Lineout throws must find the jumper, scrums must be won cleanly, box kicks must go the right distance, grubbers must not ricochet off an opponent, passes must go to hand, passes must not be behind or above a player (thus breaking momentum), receivers must make sure they’re behind the passer, touch kicks must be long but also “dead” so that the ball can’t be quickly thrown in and run back, wings must have good aerial skills, penalties (worse, yellow or red cards) must not be conceded. In short, mistakes must be minimal and accuracy supreme.

There is just so much that has to be perfect. For instance goal-kicking. Joel Stransky’s name will forever be written large in the annals because of heroics in 1995. And take Percy Montgomery – at the 2007 RWC in France, he played at the Stade de France three times (England, Argentina, England) and didn’t miss one of 18 place-kicks.

To emphasise. Winning the World Cup is a game of perfect. Can the Boks do it? Right now, I’m not so sure.

- Dan Retief

Let's chat

  • Herman

    Fully concur. Another problem is of course that Rassie will be drawing in a clump of overseas players to bolster his squad who in reality play at club level albeit it at a reasonably high level. I still believe SR NZ teams play at a higher level with Argentina right up there. The current Aussie and SA teams will not cope with those Euro competitions imo.

    Oh as for Vermeulen’s miracle pass in 2015 well that was it, he hasn’t passed the ball since, lol. In fact HM admitted after the game that he was ready to bollock DV until it came off. Say’s a lot about his inherent dom krag mentality. Regrettably it is not likely to change under Rassie’s stunted game plan in the months ahead. Progressive change are swear words in sunny SA. Cheers.

  • Barry

    It is almost impossible to make a prediction until we know what his final squad looks like. The first step is to get his selections right which is a more complex issue in South Africa than else where.

    If he is to hold his course and pick players predominantly from two franchises again, then we will have little chance. We have not had the benefit of a four year window to settle combinations and depth, so the selection process will be all the more important!

    Essentially, the World Cup has just begun!

    • Vossie

      Hopefully Rassie realizes that he needs to do what it takes in terms of selection, no favoritism of certain players, unfortunately with the inclusion of Elstadt and a number of other players it does look like. Rassie needs to be in the right mindset, no one is guaranteed a Bok start unless you performed day in and day out without fail, if you dont then goodbye. Everyone needs to know they are replaceable!

      • Barry

        We are of like mind on this Vossie. Let’s see what the narrowed squad looks like – I suspect not to shockingly different from what it was last year! Though to be fair the inclusion of Coetzee, Steyn and Reinach are encouraging additions.

  • John Comyn

    Or a little luck Dan! The one’s that come to mind are French being a mm short of the of line in the rain affected Durban game against the Boks. The forward pass by France that knocked the AB’s out. How about the Bryce Lawrence debacle that knocked the Boks out in the quarters.

    • Barry

      You have a point John, you also need the bounce of the ball and a little luck!

      We can only focus on the controllable aspects though, the other elements are out of our grasp.

  • IRC

    The boks will be lucky to make the final 4. Let’s face it – this is a patchwork team at best. If we succeed in any form it will be because of individuals performing in the moment.

    Our opponents have settled teams that have played together for more than a season with coaches that have been working with them for longer than Rassie has with our boks. The whole build up to this RWC has been shoddy and unprofessional. And this will show in those pressure moments where “perfection” is needed.

  • Paul Green

    Please guys don’t be so negative; the rugby will be played in September any team has an equal chance. NZ is not unstoppable.they only human like all the other teams.So give our boys the enxouragemet and support they need

    • Herman

      Where have you been since 2009 ? If we don’t win the RC or WC we will have had 10 years without a meaningful trophy. Rassie did nothing last year losing to 5 countries yet the bulk of those players have been guaranteed places this year coming mostly from failed Franchises. I have responded to Barry below which kindly read if you wish. I look forward to your comments. Cheers.

  • Dean Bright

    How long did Kitch Christie take to put together a World Cup winning team? 9 months. That’s right. A team that nobody rated. Yet, they beat the defending champions in their first game. That Australian team was a bunch of superstars. Probably the best team that country has ever produced. Don’t count the Boks out just yet.

  • Barry

    Dean we all live in hope for our National side, we wouldn’t be commenting if we didn’t.

    Your example of Christie though is not a fair comparison to the circumstances we face today. In 95 all the players lived in South Africa and there were no racial selection policies. The administrations of most first tier countries have migrated into the professional era whilst ours remains an elected leadership from the ranks of the amateur sport!

    We have intense blind spots on player selection, with the majority of players picked from the coaches previous Province. Meyer picked Bulls, Toetie Stormers and now Erasmus Stormers as well.

    In Super Rugby 2019 the scrum stats show the Stormers in 12th spot the Bulls in 10th and the Sharks and Lions in joint 7th spot. Yet the selection of Bok forward spots are Stormers 8, Bulls 6 and the Lions and Sharks a combined 5 spots. I appreciate that selections are on an individual basis, but these numbers do serve as a good yard stick as to whether you’ve got it right or not. – on face value not!

    Consider also players like Bosch who had a great season, but there’s no recognition, whilst Jantjies senior had a shocker but is in the mix! You can’t pick players on last years reputation yet we continue to! There are many similar examples in this years mix!

    We remain hopeful for our National side, but forgive us for also highlighting some of the issues that are standing in the way of our success!

    • Herman

      Barry I agree with a lot you’ve said and if truth be told NO player has been a consistent performer in SR including the injured Boks when they did play. PSDT maybe an exception but I maintain that he is a great lock not a loose forward. His hands are pretty average and offloads almost non existent. A few newbies have appeared on the scene showing a bit of gees but green as hell. Even the van Stadens and Coetzees disappeared at times.

      However I don’t agree on Bosch being the answer either at flyhalf or fullback. Far too fragile and despite his gliding runs still doesn’t know when to link and read the game. He is another typical dom krag player picked largely for his boot. That’s why it mystifies me why RdP didn’t pick him more times. Oh sorry I can answer that, Jnr needed the game time, lol.

      This may surprise you but I believe Elton has been pretty poor this season and came off the boil last year as well, completely overplayed. But Rassie needs to up his transformation ratio’s so he will go anyway. Pollard remains for me an enigma. Cast in his role as the dom krag king of flyhalves he also fails the consistency test. Rassie’s dom krag game plan however guarantees him his spot. Heaven help us.

      Rassie’s penchant for the Stormers / Bulls players is ridiculous. None of those Stormers props performed well this season and dominated no one. Sadie took most of them to the cleaners and he is a rookie. Form obviously counts for nothing in Rassie’s coaching manual.

      Rassie has been very quiet and quite frankly I believe he is up the creek without a paddle. Eleven overseas mercenaries in the squad of 44 which includes the 5 injured players. That’s 25% of the squad. The Aussie test is in three weeks and only a few ‘camps’ and a few workouts on the practice field and he is going to weld this lot into a formidable force for the RC and WC ? If he manages it somehow it will truly blow this four year preparation period for WC’s out of the water. Our so called ‘meticulous planner’ methinks will be horribly exposed over the next four months imo.

      No positives I’m afraid, I searched hi and low but couldn’t come up with a single one. Fail this year and we will have had a decade of Bok misery since 2009. My promise is to announce my retirement on the day we are knocked out of the WC, no doubt it will please some but enough is enough. Einstein was a very wise man. Cheers.

  • Barry


    There are quite a few of the Boks that consistently performed well in SR 2019 imo – RG Snyman, Pollard (style aside) Marx, PSDT, Kitshoff, Beast, but there are many more that we’re pedestrian at best, yet they’re in the mix regardless!

    I am pleased we agree on the Alton Jantjies season, but no we don’t agree on Bosch’s frailties. He’s a smaller guy, so he’ll never be dominant in the physicality department, but then nor is Jantjies! Bosch made almost three times the number of meters that Alton did , so he’s not scared to carry and he missed fewer tackles! We’re looking for skills at 10 and Bosch has plenty of those. Would it not have been the ideal opportunity to give him time with the likes of Pollard and Steyn. Instead we reward mediocrity and pick a guy based on last years performance! They’re both players of colour!

    On the question of the other Jantjies, young Herschel, has shows encouraging signs, but if you place Papiers stats side by side, the Bulls man is a bit ahead of the race – frankly both need time. The point is Papier has not done anything worthy of his exclusion and the other not enough to warrant his inclusion!

    Then there’s the Full back berth. I have no issue with the inclusion of Dylan Leyds he’s had a good season, but sorry Gelant has not done enough to trump the likes of Bosch or Coetzee – even Fassi has better numbers than Gelant! The only stat that goes Gelant way are meters kicked- so from that we can assume an attacking full back is not the order of the day!

    I have already touched on the scrum earlier but as you point out, young Sadie upset many of the first liners. Malherbe has not had a great season but still gets selected, Oosthuizen by contrast has been good, but they include Thom Du Toit in preference?? I’m a Du Tout fan, but he’s not a great tight head, lets be honest?

    I appreciate that selections will never satisfy everyone, but really if the panel is selecting form players, there would be little complaint. As ever we are left with that hollow uncomfortable feeling that there is not alway a level rugby pitch when it comes to our national team selection.

    • Whynger

      Really Barry. Are you still on “Bosch missed fewer tackles”. Cherry picking discredits your use of stats. It has been pointed out to you several times in the past, that he has also made far fewer tackles than Elton. I am not a fan of either, and Bosch does carry very well. An interesting stat to investigate might be which back line player attempted the least number of tackles in the competition per hour of game time. Bosch may still be strongly in the running for a trophy after all..

      • Barry

        Hi Whynger, perhaps re-read my post and if it’s not too much to ask, without the blue tinted eye ware!

        My point is that Jantjies has had a poor season and that Bosch has had quite the opposite, albeit under very difficult conditions. You chaps in the Cape try and discredit the young man on defense frailties, simply because you have nothing else to offer. Yet we read in the press that you’re trying to persuade him to move to Newlands! I wonder which it is – could it perhaps be an issue of sour grapes?

        On the defense side, I’ve been plain on this, Bosch is a small chap so he’s never going to be overly physical, but he needs to be adequate and I believe he is just that. Those in contention as a reserve 15 had missed tackle stats of 12/15/13/17 – Bosch was in the middle!

        However, as you are probably completely aware, but highly unlikely to admit, it is Bosch’s attacking flair and his astute boot that place him head and shoulders above the rest! Bosch made 822m in SR 2019, Jantjies 333m – but remember Jantjies had two more games in play time than Bosch! The only guy that came close to Bosch was Leyds who registered 962m, but had 2,3 more games than Bosch!

        If this were New Zealand, Bosch would be in the mix not Jantjies. Damien Mc Kenzie is not the strongest defender, but who would not have him in there team?

        If you would rather though, we can talk about your area of expertise – let’s chat about Sadie and Melherbe perhaps?

        • Herman

          Barry can’t quite agree with you re the Bosch affair. There is something I call tackle avoidance which by way of a perfect example is that soon to be WC certainty, DDA. Watch him slow down slightly when a do or die effort is required. He often allows the player to pass him then tries to play catch up thus avoiding the tough collisions. Tackling is a mindset and the game saving tackle may be required at a crucial stage and if missed due to hesitancy and a failure to commit it could be game over.

          Bosch shows these weaknesses too. He does what I call the ‘waltzing matilda’ tackle where he grabs the jersey around the shoulder and holds on and then someone completes the tackle for him. I trust the stats don’t credit Bosch with this iffy attempt.

          Say what you will about Jantjies but he never shirks a tackle and is often ‘run over’ which looks bad but shows he puts his life on the line every time for his team. And the guy is made of teflon. For a chap who plays just about every game in SR he is remarkably injury free. Maybe it’s because you usually get hurt tackling when you don’t commit wholeheartedly to the process.

          As I’ve said before Bosch has the tendency to die with the ball. He doesn’t realize that once he has found the gap an offload would be on because defences are in disarray. But no doubt under RDP’s failed coaching philosophy it is frowned upon. By comparison Jantjies may have far less running metres but is far more effective with his short sharp breaks and delicate switch passes which creates space for the support runners. Hence the Lions being the top try scorers for four years now and the Sharks definitely not so according to the stats.

          Barry I’ve always maintained that stats are highly subjective and only meant for coaches to use when reviewing the game. A missed tackle and they can see why and the player is found not guilty due to circumstance. Pollard tops the kicking stats but his team take their penalties no matter what. Ditto the Sharks. The Lions the complete opposite and score the most tries.

          The stats don’t take those factors into account. But having said that the Sanzar team stats reflect that the Lions were the best of the SA teams in most categories yet they had a pretty poor season by their own standards. I think that just about sums it up. Cheers.

          • Dean Bright

            Pulling at straws here lol! this post is ridiculous in regards to tackling. Elton has the highest missed tackles and you make excuses for him. I’ve never heard such biased rubbish in my life. Then you make an excuse for Elton’s size and being “teflon”. hahaha have you seen Faf? He takes down anybody.

  • Barry

    Hermie, the review of the modern professional game is by way of statistical analysis. “IMO’s” (in my opinion) are last century, when the game was amateur!

    Sure you also need to watch the game in the first instance, but most of us are human (not sure about John, lol) and we have preconceived notions before we start – it’s just human. Having a look at the stats is the leveler, it removes the bull dust and the bias. It is nothing more really than a record of what happened on the field, but often people feel threatened by it because the stats don’t agree with their personal views!

    Bosch’s missed tackle count for SR is 0,9 missed per game. I think most franchise coaches could live with that, and I’m happy to concede he’ll probably never be a dominant tackler, but nor will Damien McKenzie! You strongly advocate the attacking game, if any one should understand this, it is you!

    Your other views on his technique are IMO’s coming from a party trying to protect the interests of the second player. I thought we had already agreed, Jantjies had a poor season?

    • Herman

      This is not about Jantjies but Bosch as a potential Bok flyhalf. Jantjies I admitted is all at sea these days and personally I wouldn’t pick him for the Boks on his present form. I wouldn’t even if he was on song, Rassie’s game plan would not get the best out of him.

      I assume you watched the Crusaders / Canes thriller. There you had two top class flyhalves pitted against each other in a rugby classic played at a fantastic pace.. Can you see Bosch ( or the Boks for that matter ) coping with that ?? I can’t even see Pollard coping if truth be told. Our SR teams suffered as soon as the NZ teams upped the tempo and executed with precision Our dom krag teams play to a low intensity fail safe conservative game plan and Bosch under RDP has been brought up on it. Now you throw him into a test match with his ‘frailties’ and lack of vision ( as I explained earlier ) and you expect him to dominate the higher ranked teams ?

      I’m not knocking the youngster here he has the potential but it’s still a bit early to throw him in at the deep end in this WC year. Mind you the same applies to most of our Boks if truth be he’ll probably fit in well, lol. Cheers.

  • Nick

    So Hermie, you are saying that DDA purposely pulls out of tackles he should be making? Big call that!

    • Herman

      I enjoy watching him time his duck and diving to perfection, it’s an art form, lol. Cheers.

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