South African sides need stronger leaders to handle 'death' pressure

Louis Schreuder crashes over the tryline for the Sharks in their defeat by the Hurricanes. MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

One of the turning points in the Springboks' triumphant 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign was John Smit's message to his troops when they were under the pump against Fiji in the quarterfinals.

Less than 24 hours after New Zealand had been knocked out of the tournament by unpredictable France, and Australia were booking early flights home, it looked like the Boks were about to exit stage left.

Fiji, with only 14 men on the field, were running the Boks ragged and managed to wipe out South Africa's early advantage to get back to 20-20. It was after the Islanders' final score that Smit rallied the troops.

"John told the players that he could see in their eyes what he had seen in those of the Australia and New Zealand players at the same stage in their games the previous day," then Boks coach Jake White said after the match.

"He told them to snap out of it, and it was a magnificent example of leadership under the most intense pressure."

The Boks went on to win that match 37-20, made light work of Argentina in the semifinals and outlasted England in a tense final. But it all started with Smit's little speech under the posts.

The Boks team had the self-belief that they could overcome anything. Many of the players had competed in the Super Rugby final earlier that year, when the Sharks hosted the Bulls at Kings Park, and many went on to win a series against the British & Irish Lions and win the Tri-Nations under Peter de Villiers in 2009.

Those Springboks and Super Rugby teams were ruthless in the way they closed out matches. They were deadly accurate and had the mental capacity get the job done.

Fast-forward to 2018, and specifically to the past couple of weeks, and South African teams in Super Rugby have shown an unhealthy lack of composure in this year's competition.

There have been many cases of South African team blowing comfortable leads, especially against New Zealand opposition, but the Bulls' defeat by the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago and the Sharks' one-point loss to the Hurricanes on Friday stood out as cases when South African teams have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

But it's not something new, or an issue that has reared its ugly head in 2018, as far as South African rugby is concerned.

In 2015 the Boks looked a deer caught in the headlights when Japan got in their faces at the Rugby World Cup in England, and in 2016 Italy celebrated their most famous rugby victory in history when they beat former coach Allister Coetzee's men in Florence.

The biggest problem has been the lack of composure in the last quarter of a match, which may have something to do with South African players' conditioning or lack thereof. Or maybe it's just better game management, as everyone around the world is probably using the same training methods in the 21st century.

New Zealand's Super Rugby teams, and indeed the All Blacks, seem to find an extra gear in the last quarter of a matches. They are just that extra yard quicker to the breakdown, have a little bit more force in the tackle, and more zip on attack. But it's their composure and the way they execute the basics under pressure that sets them apart from their South African counterparts.

New Zealand teams hardly change the way they play, no matter what situation they face or find themselves in. The Chiefs and the Hurricanes in their matches against the Bulls and Sharks respectively kept on trusting the processes and backing their skills to keep position and force the opposition to concede penalties.

Penalties allows for easy exits, and hence set up attacking platforms. And, when the Kiwi backs have their tails up, they are very tough to stop in a team's 22 because of their skills and good decisions they make on attack.

South African teams need to change their approach, as they focus maybe too much on the first 20 minutes and not the match as whole.

It is important to get physical dominance in the first 20 minutes of a match, but South African teams tend to spend too much energy doing it. Their game management needs to be a lot better, getting a feel for the game and knowing when to pile on the pressure.

South Africans need to play smarter and execute better under pressure. But more than that, they need strong leaders to guide the teams though tense situations in the last quarter.

It's the only way they are going to beat New Zealand teams in their own backyard and get back to the days when the Boks were on top of the world.