There’s a familiar anxiety that settles over Springbok fans on a Thursday before a Test. Part biltong-cynicism: a mixture of realistic appraisal and analytical gloom. Part naartjie-voodoo: subconscious emotional protection from disappointment, and not wanting to ‘jinx’ it. Part head, part heart.
The end result is more or less the same, and it leaves us with the following thought leading up to this week’s clash between South Africa and England in Bloemfontein: The first Test was one hell of a game of rugby, but sneaking past a team that has lost five in a row, at Ellis Park, with a little help from the ref, should wave a big, red flag in front of your face.
“There is plenty of room for improvement,” is the standard refrain now that Kolisiphoria has settled down. So here are my three biggest concerns ahead of the next Test:
It was easy for Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard to gain yards in the first Test because of the hard work done by the forwards. When the Boks kicked, they did so with competence born of a confidence.
But it was telling that, in the final minutes of the game, a tactical kick for territory by the Boks was turned into points by Jonny May who took the ball on the left wing and ended up scoring in the right hand corner. And just prior to that, a superb kick by Elliot Daly put the Boks under some pressure in their own 22.
The Boks were expecting an aerial assault in the first Test and, in rugby, kicking begets kicking. So I wouldn’t be surprised if England’s attack coach threw down that particular gauntlet in the very near future. Heads up, Handre!
The Boks looked strongest when they skipped centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am and played in the back three. This says less about the back three than it does about our midfield.
I suspect the English knew that our centres were a weakness and set out to defend mightily against them. Some of England’s quickest and most significant tackles were made in the centre channels, with deliberately-alarming linespeed that put De Allende and Am under a lot of pressure. So much so that I actually wonder if our criticism of the centres had to do with the players or England’s strategy.
My money says that no matter who the Boks name in the 12 and 13 jerseys for the second Test, Owen Farrell will be targeting this area again. And again. And again.
England hold the psychological advantage
England may have lost the first Test, but they’re not exactly tearing up the game plan and are unlikely to make many personnel changes.
They had the Boks on the ropes, were starved of possession for most of the game and, despite losing Mako Vunipola to a yellow card, still managed to dominate in the last ten minutes (at altitude!) to nearly take the game.
Jones is a wily old fox. In 2015 he found a way to beat South Africa, with Japan!
At Ellis Park, England found a weakness in the Springbok defence plan and exploited it mercilessly. Jones took so much confidence from the opening 20 minutes that, after the final whistle, he indulged in a bit of banter about the quest for a bottle of pinotage.
Make no mistake, England are heading into the second Test with their tails up!