Opinion: Mindset shift a must for misfiring Springboks ahead of France showdown

Springboks singing anthem v Ireland ANS 2022 - PA.jpg Credit: Alamy
Springboks singing anthem v Ireland ANS 2022 - PA.jpg Credit: Alamy

The defeat in Dublin showcased the Springboks’ mental vulnerability. They have to cultivate a killer instinct ahead of the showdown with France in Marseille, writes Jon Cardinelli.

After the Springboks finished the Rugby Championship in second place, coach Jacques Nienaber lamented a series of missed opportunities over the course of the campaign.

One more victory – or even a couple more bonus points – would have earned South Africa top spot and a rare southern-hemisphere title.

Poor execution and finishing proved costly

As it was, the Boks paid dearly for their poor execution and finishing. Despite topping the stats for clean breaks, they finished the tournament in second place for tries scored – with the All Blacks finishing in first.

Nienaber noted how hard it is to score points at Test level – particularly against the world’s top-ranked teams. He said that there are perhaps seven or eight opportunities to score points over the course of a game, and that the very best sides make those chances count.

One round into the November internationals, and it’s clear to see why teams like Ireland and France are at the top of the Test pyramid, and why South Africa are among the chasing pack.

The Boks have the game plan to win the territorial battle and to create scoring chances. What they don’t have at present is the killer instinct to convert chances into tries and points.

This is why the Boks lose so many big Tests. Overall, they’ve won just 14 of their 23 Tests (61%) since the start of 2021.

There was much to like about the Boks’ performance in Dublin, particularly in the early stages.

The forwards bulldozed their Irish counterparts at the gainline, and showed a lot of respect for the ball at the breakdown. The defence was in top form, with the likes of Jesse Kriel and Makazole Mapimpi shooting out of the line to complete momentum-shifting spot tackles.

The Boks took the fight to the Irish, and had them on the ropes. But when the bell sounded for half-time, the 6-6 scoreline did not reflect any dominance. If anything, it was a mini-victory for the Irish, who had spent most of the first half on the back foot.

There were moments when the Boks carried well beyond gainline, and others when they found themselves in space. Through poor handling, kicking and decision-making, they wasted golden opportunities, and occasionally provided Ireland with a chance to counter.

Goal-kicking conundrum

The absence of a reliable goal-kicker is a relatively new problem.

Damian Willemse, who has played full-back for most of his Test career and at number 12 for the Stormers in recent seasons, was moved to fly-half after Handré Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Frans Steyn were ruled out of the four-Test tour. Willemse travelled to Europe this November as the first-choice kicker – even though he doesn’t kick for his franchise – while Cheslin Kolbe, starting in place of Willemse at number 15, was also identified as a goal-kicking option.

This past Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, Willemse and Kolbe combined for two successful goal kicks in five attempts. Seven points were left on the park – a missed penalty and two missed conversions. These misses certainly contributed to South Africa’s three-point loss.

Willemse and Kolbe don’t deserve all the blame, though. As seen over the course of the 80 minutes at the Aviva, throughout the preceding Rugby Championship, and indeed for the better part of the past two seasons, the Boks have developed a habit of squandering opportunities.

On Saturday, the Boks had 10 entries into the Irish 22, and scored on just four occasions. They were particularly wasteful in the first half, where they only managed to translate two of their six surges into points.

Ireland were ruthless, at least in this particular area of the field. The hosts visited the Bok 22 on six occasions, and collected points on four of those.

While those stats don’t tell the full story about the respective teams’ attack and defence, they do provide an insight into how clinical they are – or in South Africa’s case, how wasteful – when entering the gold zone.

The Boks have been struggling with their finishing for some time. Many have criticised their overall attack, and have denounced their game plan as one-dimensional. The truth is that the Boks are working their way into good attacking positions, and then failing to pull the trigger.

The recent Rugby Championship served up several examples. The All Blacks romped to a famous 35-23 victory at Ellis Park in Round Two – but the complexion of that game may have been very different had the Boks been more clinical in the first half, where they bossed the territory and created a number of scoring chances.

They followed the same pattern when they tackled the Wallabies in Adelaide in Round Three. Despite controlling possession and territory, they wasted their chances and trailed 10-3 at half-time. A second-half surge – which has become something of a trademark in the Nienaber-era – wasn’t enough to prevent a 25-17 defeat.

Les Bleus to diminish point-scoring opportunities

The Boks are unlikely to receive seven or eight scoring chances against France this Saturday.

After shaking off the rust against the Wallabies, Les Bleus will be up for a physical fight against the world champions. They will be tougher to manhandle at the set pieces and gainline, and their overall defensive system – masterminded by the wily Shaun Edwards – will be difficult to crack. Scoring opportunities will be at a minimum.

Do the Boks have the physical and mental ability to make the most of their chances in Marseille? Do they have what it takes to hand France their first loss in 12 Tests?

This Saturday, the Boks will have the opportunity to answer these questions.

Either the Boks will deliver the most emphatic of statements in the biggest game of the Test season, or they will provide further evidence as to why they’re not ranked among the top-two teams in the world.

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Ireland claim scalp of Rugby World Cup holders South Africa in Dublin

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