Boks v All Blacks: won and lost in the margins
KEY to the Springboks’ chances of beating the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal will be the message they are giving themselves. If they were to amass the evidence or listen to an objective third party, they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on Saturday morning.
The most recent reminder came a few days ago, when the Boks looked in mortal danger for much of the game of repeating their ignominious 2011 quarterfinal exit. A couple of hours later, the All Blacks danced through their own quarterfinal test against France, in total control.
They put in a sublime performance, showing equal mastery of defence and attack. There was never a second’s doubt as to who would rule the night.
Even more dispiriting is a glance of the Boks’ recent record against the All Blacks. In the past five encounters, they have only beaten them once.
In an attempt to counter this, they have come up with a new narrative. The key word is “margin”. We heard it first from Heyneke Meyer in the euphoria last Saturday evening.
“The margins are so small because most of the players play in Europe. There is a lot of IP (intellectual property) going around. Most of the coaches are world-class. We all study each other. Any one of the top eight countries can make it.”
This explanation nullifies the All Blacks’ exceptionalism and makes the field appear relatively even.
On Monday, the new narrative was reinforced by assistant defence coach, John MacFarland: “The last three games we’ve had with them have all come down to one score and one moment, so it’s up to us to produce that on Saturday as well,” he said.
And again by Pat Lambie: “The margins are so small at this level, particularly when you play against the All Blacks.”
I suspect Lambie was trotted out for an interview precisely because he personified the one occasion when the Boks reversed the margin in their favour with his penalty kick from 55m when the Boks were 24-25 down with two minutes left on the clock.
In fact, that win against the All Blacks — last year — was the only one in which the margin really was slim: the final score was 27-25. The other encounters, in which the All Blacks triumphed, were wider: 27-20 at Ellis Park last year: 14-10 in Wellington last year; 27-38 at Ellis Park in 2013; 29-15 in Auckland in 2013.
Reinterpreting these losses as close contests that could have gone either way will boost Bok morale and make the All Blacks appear less daunting.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Meyer repeated the margin mantra. “The margins over the couple of years have been small.”
But he was frank about the reason for stressing this: “We have to believe we can beat them, otherwise we’ll be wasting our time on Saturday.”
There is another subtle emotional shift that is cheering Meyer up. Having Fourie du Preez as captain is taking him back to a happy space.
It was with Du Preez at his side that he built the Bulls from a bunch of losers, languishing at the bottom of what was then the Super 12, into the best team in SA and the first (and only) South African team to win the Super Rugby trophy.
With Fourie, Meyer has experienced winning against all expectations and that is the emotional memory he appears to be invoking now.
“I have worked with Fourie since he was 19,” said Meyer at the post-game news conference on Saturday. “We were in desperation mode.
“Fourie is so driven, probably even more than me! He really wants to win. And his desperation rubs off on the team.”
As with the Bulls of yesteryear, the Boks have experienced a series of humiliating defeats but, phoenix-like, they appear to be rising from the ashes. On Wednesday, Meyer articulated it thus: “We had a very bad start at the beginning of this season. These 23 guys (who will make up Saturday’s squad) have been together under a huge amount of pressure since the beginning of the year.
“We stick together, coming through that adversity.”
It appears that, just at the crucial time, Meyer has found the chemistry he has been hankering after for the past four years: the recreation of the Bulls’ dynamic during the past decade.
Most of his coaching staff are from that era and now his key lieutenant is as well. And the Japan game has given them the excuse to revert to the game that served the Bulls so well: bash, barge and kick.
It helps the Boks’ chances, though, that Fourie du Preez has had international experience since he left the Bulls at the end of 2011.
Since then he has taken charge of his own career, refusing to rejoin a South African club in between Springbok and Japanese commitments. He has the confidence now to experiment, as was evident in the wonderful last-minute try he and Duane Vermeulen engineered, which took the Boks into the semifinals.
Lost (or found) in translation: English commentators call Lood de Jager “Lewd de Jaeger”. Schalk Burger becomes “Shulk”. But the most amusing was probably a Fourie du Preez response to a laboured question by a French reporter after the Wales win. Had the team come up with a name for this brilliantly innovative move so that they would more easily be able to repeat it, asked the Frenchman. “No,” said Du Preez, “I just shouted: Duane, gaan links!”
• This column first appeared in Business Day