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Rugby | Springboks

Series is set up perfectly



It was the perfect way for the South African international season to start, for the Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi eras to start, and losing coach Eddie Jones was pretty emphatic too - the Emirates Airlines Park thriller has set up the series perfectly.

It feels like a long time since a rugby test match in South Africa has sparked as much enthusiasm as the Springboks’ 42-39 win over England did at the weekend. While there were notable weaknesses, particularly defensively, and at halftime it felt like we’d watched the first day of a cricket test where both teams had been bowled out for 150, there was also plenty to enthuse about.

The prospect of both teams getting better and turning around the areas where they made mistakes makes it feel like Saturday’s second game in Bloemfontein can’t come soon enough. Bok coach Erasmus says the win has given his team, and skipper Kolisi, space to develop. Had they lost in Johannesburg the pressure would have been intense and unrelenting this week and the Boks would be on the back foot.

“Had we lost this game I know a lot of people would have been saying that we made a mistake to go to Washington (to play Wales in an exhibition test),” said Erasmus.

Deep down Erasmus probably does agree with those of us who reckon it was a mistake to travel halfway across the world a few days before such an important test match. At the post-match press conference at Emirates Airlines Park, he kept on referring to the impact that game had, particularly on what should otherwise have been an explosive bench.

MAKING AN IMPACT AND FADING

Erasmus reckoned the players who came on made an impact initially and then faded. It was probably why the Boks never put England away when they should have. When they were up going into the last quarter, and the likes of Akker van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Steven Kitshoff and Thomas du Toit had been added to the mix, the smart money might have been on the Boks hitting the 50 mark and winning by around 15 to 20 points.

That they didn’t was partially down to what Jones pointed out afterwards, that it was a momentum game where teams took it in turns to get hold of the ball and keep it.

“We started off the game dominating the possession and scoring points, then in the middle parts of the game they did that, but by the end we were getting our hands on the ball again and we were threatening again,” said Jones.

That is true, but on another day, a day where they hadn’t just come off a flight to the USA, the Bok bench would have made too much of an impact to allow England back into the game.

“Both teams failed to take opportunities to put the other away,” said Erasmus. “England should have put us away after that opening 20 minutes, and we should have put them away later and not allowed them back in. You could see at the end that the guys who had been to Washington were tired and it was something that I was worried about.”

NO JETLAG OR ELLIS PARK FACTOR

There won’t be the jetlag factor in Bloemfontein, but then there won’t be the Ellis Park factor helping the Boks either. Would the Boks have been able to use their get out of jail free card at another venue? When Jones was asked the question he said it was a very good one and appeared to intimate that he thought not. He’s probably right too.

He’s also probably right that the freaky comeback that the Boks executed in Johannesburg is not something that can be repeated and was a once-off. But then it is also unlikely the Boks will make the same tactical defence mistakes that they made in the first quarter that contributed to England’s big lead.

There were some pretty freaky occurrences in those early minutes too, and with so much else that happened during the game, one aspect that largely got overlooked in the post-match analysis but was nonetheless significant was Elliot Daly’s monster 60 metre penalty kick. That kick stunned the Boks in the same way that Frans Steyn stunned the All Blacks with a similar kick in a Tri-Nations decider in Hamilton in 2009 and it contributed to putting them on the back foot early in the game.

The quality of the England attacking game was excellent in the first quarter and again later in the contest when they started getting their hands back on the ball again and started getting some momentum back. The Bok camp should be concerned about how easy it appeared for them to threaten and score and defence will doubtless be one of the areas that they sweat over in the coming days in Bloemfontein.

DID ENGLAND PLAY THE RIGHT GAME?

At the same time, England will be in Durban considering whether they played the right game after taking their big lead. They took the Boks by surprise by running it, and Erasmus admitted afterwards he’d got it wrong. But Jones also thought his players had perhaps been seduced by the type of game it was. Had they kicked more and made more of an attempt to slow the game down in the last three quarters of play, they might well have won comfortably.

But Jones claimed he wasn’t too disappointed about the fact they didn’t kick on and win. At least not in a sense that would leave his men feeling low on confidence ahead of Bloemfontein.

“Individual errors cost us and we gave the Boks a get out of jail card with our indiscipline but what you saw in this match was the way I want the team to play and I think there is a lot of confidence we can take from this game,” said the former Wallabies mentor.

Ditto the Boks. So roll on Saturday and Bloemfontein, it could be quite a contest.



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