The All Blacks and Springboks will meet for the 100th time on Saturday in a test which might decide this year’s Rugby Championship but which some observers also see as a contest for the soul of rugby.
The match at Townsville in north Queensland state in Australia features a stark contrast of styles between the All Blacks’ free-flowing, high-paced style which relies on skill and keeping the ball in hand and the Springboks’ less adventurous game which focuses on kicking and assertive forward play.
There is little doubt which style rugby fans most enjoy. Leading analysts and former coaches from around the world have been almost unanimous in criticizing the Springboks’ style which they fear will turn off rugby audiences.
Two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said during the series between the Springboks and British and Irish Lions this season “it’s not a game that anybody wants to watch.”
In a column in England’s Daily Mail, 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward — never a fan of the All Blacks — applauded New Zealand for playing “proper rugby.”
Commenting after South Africa’s back-to-back losses to Australia over the last two weekends, Woodward wrote: “I looked on in horror last weekend at the sheer poverty and boredom from the South Africa team against Australia. Rugby was not — and is not — meant to be played like that and I’m just pleased Australia won.
“The Boks’ series against the Lions was little better and it should worry everyone involved in the sport that rugby is going down that route. It will be dead in five years if it does.”
The Springboks have been defiant in the face of that criticism, arguing that the end justifies the means. South Africa is the current world champion and the top-ranked team in world rugby. Though the series against the Lions is regarded as one of the least exciting major series in recent years — between two unambitious teams — the Springboks say winning justifies their chosen style.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard made that argument when the Springboks beat Argentina twice in Rugby Championship matches in South Africa.
“Everyone has got their way of playing rugby that they think is the right way,” Pollard said. “For us, it is not about entertaining. Test match rugby is about winning."
Springboks assistant coach Mzwandile Stick, responsible for the team’s back play, mounted a more colorful defense.
“We are the No. 1 team in the world currently, we are world champions currently so people always talk about us,” Stick said. “Even if it is positive or negative . . . it is the nature of the position where we are."
Where South Africa goes now, after their two losses to the Wallabies suggest their strategy is not always a winning one will be seen on Saturday. The Springboks must have less confidence in their kicking game against opponents who can not only defuse the high ball but turn it against them.
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber says the losses to Australia were not the fault of the game plan but of the Boks’ poor executing. Saturday’s match may again put the strategy on trial.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster expects the Springboks to be well prepared and focused on proper execution of the plan.
“We’ve got no doubt that South Africa has had a plan for a long time for this game,” Foster said. “What we have learned is not to be surprised at the intensity of the opponent’s build up and not to get lulled into a sense of their previous two weeks and their previous form and think that that is going to be an indicator of what happens on Saturday,” he said.
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