New-look Springboks get mixed reviews after Ireland win

Ireland’s inside centre Bundee Ali (R) and wing James Lowe (2nd L) attempt to tackle South Africa’s flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit (2nd R) during their first test match at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria on July 6, 2024. AFP

South Africa’s rugby media gave mixed reviews to the more expansive game played by the Springboks in their 27-20 win in the first Test against Ireland at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.

The Afrikaans language Rapport newspaper hailed South Africa’s first win over Ireland since 2016 in a titanic battle between the top two teams in the world.

A headline awarded a “cum laude” (“with praise”) to Springbok coach “Doctor” Rassie Erasmus for improving the formula that won a second successive Rugby World Cup title last year.

“The new Springbok model is still the V8 machine of 2023 but under the bonnet there is now significantly more speed,” wrote rugby journalist Bokkie Gerber.

According to Gerber, new assistant coaches Tony Brown and Jerry Flannery had helped the Springboks evolve into a team that was more willing to play with ball in hand than the side that won the World Cup.

There was a recognition, though, that there were risks with the new strategy, with the Springboks conceding three tries – two of them in the closing stages.

And flyhalf Handre Pollard, a key figure in the World Cup campaign, had an off day, missing three place kicks and playing “like a fish out of water,” according to Gerber.

Rapport awarded Pollard only four out of 10 in their player assessments, while Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit were given nines.

Chief rugby correspondent Hendrik Cronje quoted Erasmus as acknowledging that mistakes would be made in the quest for a more attacking style.

Cronje wrote that Brown’s influence could be seen in the way the Springboks used the ball, with flanks Kolisi and Du Toit both used as attacking ball carriers in the wide channel.

The Sunday Times, South Africa’s biggest-selling weekend newspaper, also singled out the impact of Brown, a former New Zealand All Black. “There was a willingness to explore width earlier in their attack and when they did so it was with pace and power,” wrote rugby correspondent Liam del Carme.

But columnist Mark Keohane was a dissenting voice: “Great Springboks result. Terrible Bok performance,” was his verdict.

“Tony Brown is considered among the most innovative attack coaches in the world but watching the Springboks in Pretoria was like watching a limp All Blacks backline trying to play with width and offloads to beat an aggressive Bok defence. It looked awful,” wrote Keohane.

“The scrum, the set piece and the breakdown, the pillars of South Africa’s World Cup successes in 2019 and 2023, seemed to have been forgotten as South Africa sought to play a romantic new age game.”

Keohane urged the Springboks to return to their World Cup-winning formula in the second Test in Durban on Saturday.

The Sport24 website’s Simnikiwe Xabanisa described the Springbok performance as “a mixed bag” but noted that it was the beginning of a new World Cup cycle, with the Springboks having four years to work on a new playing style.

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