Eddie Jones: Boks have peaked – the only way is down
Calling the shots
Saturday 04 July 2009
It may seem a strange thing to say about a South African side celebrating a first series victory over the Lions in almost 30 years, but to my way of thinking the Springboks look as though they are running on empty.
Last week in Pretoria they were really quite poor in a surprising number of areas: the late try from Jaque Fourie and Morne Steyn's magnificent long-range kicking got them out of jail. I don't believe those escape routes will open up for them indefinitely. In fact, I can see things starting to come apart.
Whether that will be of much help to the Lions today, it's difficult to say. I think Ian McGeechan's team will play in an uninhibited way, they are certainly due some luck and no matter how hard the South Africans fight their own complacency, they have already won the war and know it. Unless the opposition is being completely outclassed – hardly the case with the Lions – it is never easy to go from 2-0 to 3-0. There again, Ellis Park is one of the more difficult places for a foreign side to win. I don't discount the Lions' chances by any means, but if the Boks get away from them early, they could pile on some points.
Of course, today's match marks the end of the road for this Lions vintage, which can only live in the moment. The Boks have a future to think about, both short-term and long-term. The forthcoming Tri-Nations series promises to be bloody hard, with the Wallabies developing nicely and the All Blacks smarting from some recent setbacks. Then, there is the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, where the South Africans will be defending their title.
The trouble for them right now is that many of their best-known players have won everything there is to win and, as a result, will inevitably start to slip off their standards. Something similar happened in Australia after the Wallabies won the 1999 World Cup and then beat the Lions in 2001: when you've done it all, the problem of finding something else is a tough one to solve. Add to this the fact that the Springboks look a little under-coached and you see the scale of the issue they are about to face.
They can certainly do without the kind of problem presented to them by Schalk Burger. When I worked with the Boks during the last World Cup, I found Schalk to be a terrific guy. If he goes at the the game hard – very hard, I'd say – he never struck me as a dirty player, and I'd consider the business with the hand in Luke Fitzgerald's eye at the start of last week's game to be out of character. But it happened, all too publicly, and the authorities have to ensure that the punishment goes at least some of the way towards fitting the crime. If, as now seems certain, the International Rugby Board adopts new powers to bring its own appeals against inappropriate punishments, it will be no bad thing. Rugby is quite tough enough without this kind of nonsense.
As for the incident involving Bakkies Botha, banned for charging into a ruck and dislocating the shoulder of Adam Jones (left, who, I should say, really impressed me over the course of the tour) – well, that was much more grey and blurred. It's unlikely he would even have been cited had Jones simply absorbed the hit and carried on playing: let's face it, someone can be seen operating outside the strict letter of the law at virtually every breakdown. The clear-out at the tackle area is one of rugby's fine-line areas, especially for a player like Bakkies who always operates on the cusp. If the Lions were undone in last week's match by a heavy injury toll and the move to uncontested scrums at the start of the second half, I would argue that they also paid the price for one or two gaffes in selection and their decision to stick with a tactical approach that wasn't quite flexible enough for the conditions at altitude. As I mentioned before the Pretoria game, a high-energy, multiphase approach is a tough ask on the highveld. Just how tough was evident in the final quarter, where the Lions ran out of legs, played too much kick-chase rugby and allowed the Boks to find a way back.
But I wouldn't be too critical of them. I always believed that, man for man, the Boks had an edge. Yet by performing with an enormous amount of pride, developing a genuine sense of purpose and coming together in the spirit of unity, the Lions threatened the world champions and fought them to within an inch of their lives. If the South Africans have been short of their optimum and the tourists came with a high-risk strategy that didn't quite work for them, the Tests over the last fortnight were still massively competitive. More of the same today? I hope so.
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