Springboks have the power, but the poise?
Cheslin Kolbe got the ball right near the touchline and with two Italians closing in. One jink inside his opposite number Michele Campagnaro, then another skip outside fullback Matteo Minozzi to score.
It was almost dainty, and that’s not a word often associated with the Springboks.
It definitely didn’t come to mind for Italy coach Conor O’Shea after his team was mauled 49-3 by the Boks in Shizuoka on Friday night. Rather, O’Shea went with: Massive. Powerful. Formidable. And others to the same effect.
This was the Springboks with their backs to the wall and facing an early Rugby World Cup exit if they lost. Different to playing South Africa on an end-of-year “friendly” tour to Europe, as Italy is used to, O’Shea said.
“This wasn’t them coming to Italy in the autumn,” he said. “This was them coming at us when we stood in their way.”
Yet, South African physicality is often a given. Springbok teams have rarely struggled to find big men willing and able to crash into and through defensive lines. Or smash opponents back in a tackle. Or scrum, lineout and maul with relish.
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi replied to a question on South Africa’s physicality against Italy by saying: “That’s the way it’s always been.”
The poise is the poser for South Africa.
Poise like Kolbe has showed, along with his electrifying pace and energy. And, more crucially for Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, overall poise from the team in those game-turning moments — whether defending or attacking — that settle tight knockout matches at the Rugby World Cup.
As a lesson, South Africa exerted pressure on world champion New Zealand in their pool opener in Yokohama with a torrent of big men carrying the ball at the All Blacks and an abrasive defensive system that was right in the defending champions’ faces.
Then the Springboks made a couple of errors against the world’s best team and conceded 17 points in five minutes. They couldn’t drag themselves back from that.
A small loss of poise can often undermine an abundance of power.
South Africa had injury concerns over Kolbe when he left the field with a few minutes to go against Italy with a twisted left ankle. The Springboks said on Saturday he was fine, walking normally and x-rays had showed no serious damage.
Erasmus said Kolbe was available “at a push” for the last pool game against Canada in Kobe on Tuesday, although it’s unlikely that South Africa will risk its best player of the tournament against the Canadians.
The Springboks also said fellow winger Makazole Mapimpi had nine stiches in a cut on his forehead from the Italy game. Mapimpi went off to get patched up at Shizuoka Stadium and returned to the field to run in one of the seven tries from the Boks.
“We have the usual bumps and bruises following a match but otherwise we’re in a good space,” Erasmus said.