Stereotyped Springboks finally move on, says Justin Marshall

Stereotyped Springboks finally move on, says Justin Marshall
After 81 Tests for the All Blacks, 165 appearances for the Crusaders and 162 games for European clubs, the much-travelled Justin Marshall has had his share of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” rugby experiences, but all of that was trumped this week when he visited a game reserve deep in the Eastern Cape.

Marshall was the guest of Land Rover, one of the co-sponsors of the imminent Rugby World Cup, and the innovate script to highlight Land Rovers’ spirit of adventure and a5ssociation with rugby was for the Kiwi to join Bryan Habana in surprising a group of rugged game rangers during their weekly game of touch rugby on a rare patch of bare veld, surrounded by scrub, thorn trees and anthills.

There was Marshall and Habana gingerly lacing up their boots while rangers stood by with tranquiliser guns in case any of the Big Five objected to the incursion on their domain ... hippos have interrupted play previously.

“Bizarre ... totally! But also very cool,” was the 46-year-old scrumhalf’s observation that evening as he warmed himself by the fire at the Kwandwe Lodge, a glass of red in one hand and the other picking at a bowl of biltong. In mellow mood, Marshall shared his thoughts on the revival of the Springboks and their re-established rivalry with the All Blacks. “Let me start by saying that a win over a strong Bok team is a validation for the All Blacks because of the rugby history between the nations,” he said.

“For a long time the rivalry was on hold because of Apartheid-enforced isolation yet in a funny way New Zealanders still tried to keep it going through the Cavaliers (the rebel All Blacks team that toured SA in 1986) and before that the dramatic ‘81 tour - every New Zealander knows about the Flour Bomb Test.”

Marshall’s generation were aware of the history but not fully up to speed with it until the All Blacks’ first official post-isolation tour of SA, Sean Fitzpatrick’s “Incomparables” in 1996.

“Our coach John Hart sat us down and said: ‘We are about to embark on a journey that no New Zealand team has been able to successfully complete in 75 years of trying. Here is the history of our defeats in South Africa’ ... I was only 22 and hadn’t appreciated the rivalry enough, but once I saw it, it was ‘Wow!’ It was just incredible that we hadn’t been able to win a Test series on SA soil.”

The rivalry has subsequently taken some serious knocks - in 2016 there was a 57-15 rout in Durban and the next year 57-0 in Albany - but in the last four matches the aggregate score has the All Blacks marginally ahead 107-106.

Bryan Habana introducing youngsters to the game through Land Rover.

“The rivalry has been ignited, big time,” Marshall says. “I was in Wellington for the Bok Test last month and everybody was saying ‘how good is this? South Africa is back!’

“After what happened the year before in that outstanding Springbok win (also) in Wellington, the Boks were back in town, and what really thrilled me about that match was that Rassie picked his best team for it. I’d expected him to keep his powder dry a bit and then hit us with everything in their World Cup match against us in Japan. But he didn’t hold back. That gave me goose bumps because it was clear South Africa was there for no other reason but to beat us.”

Steve Hansen responded and named his best team and Marshall says the New Zealand capital was “pumped” for a week. The match delivered on the expectation and ended 16-16.

“What stood out for me was that the Boks did what the All Blacks do to other teams - steal a game at the end. That doesn’t usually happen to the All Blacks because the opposition are not good enough to do it.

“Also look at the way they created that try. They didn’t go about it by slowly eking out metres over 25 phases. They had ambition, made a break, made a switch and an injection of something special with a chip (from Cheslin Kolbe) and yes the bounce of the ball (for Herschel Jantjies) was great but you create luck. That told me there a really positive attitude within the Springbok team.”

What has changed for the Boks since those despairing defeats? Marshall offers his explanation.

“I became incredibly frustrated with the way the Boks were playing because it looked like they were trying to cage a lion. I thought ‘Why can’t you let go of this traditional way for South Africa to play, just because it won World Cups (’95, 2007)?’

“I am not making this up because I played for Saracens (dominated by South Africans) where there was a similar mindset. It was a very regimented, non-negotiable kicking game. We were not allowed to kick in our own half. Even if there was opportunity to open up, we were not encouraged to do it.”

Marshall colourfully says the Boks had a mindset of “trying to drain the opposition of their will to live” by continually forcing them back into their own half with kicks.

“I watched the 50-pointer in Durban and was thinking ‘You haven’t had the ball and then you get it and kick it, and the All Blacks are saying ‘thank you very much’ and keep it until they score a try’.

“The Boks needed someone to say ‘The game has moved on’, and it needed a coach to have the balls to pick players that can play that way.”

Marshall points out that South Africa has had unique issues to address over the last decade or so.

“You wouldn’t want to put anyone through what SA rugby has been through as it tried to find a pathway forward. It takes time. There is the huge problem of keeping talent in the country plus criteria around selection policy; you create a monster but you have to do it for the betterment of the game and to provide equal opportunities. I think South Africa is finally getting out of that but along the way there was always going to be massive ramifications. It is very difficult to deal with these peripheral things and then have to perform on the rugby field.”

@MikeGreenaway67Independent on Saturday