Sam Cane loved the challenge, just not so much the response from his All Blacks as they plunged further into the rugby look in South Africa on Sunday (NZT).
Well beaten 26-10 by the world champion Springboks in the Rugby Championship opener at a seeingthing Mbombela Stadium, the All Blacks are plunging towards some pretty dark places, not to mention a further drop down the world rankings.
Not even the positive news in the aftermath that No 10 Beauden Barrett experienced had avoided “major injury” in his horrific fall that saw a red card dished out to South African speedster Kurt-Lee Arendse could lift the gloom surrounding the Kiwi tourists.
They have now lost five of their last six tests, three of four in 2022, and look for all money a team bereft of the attributes required to turn this around any time soon. There is a lot to fix, and for many dissatisfied rugby followers in New Zealand the SOS to Crusaders super coach Scott Robertson cannot go out soon enough.
But before swords are fallen upon, or pink slips dished out, there is a rematch at an even more intimidating venue – the cauldron that is Ellis Park, the spiritual home of Bokke rugby (Sunday 3am NZT). Given the form the All Blacks are in, it shapes as a pivotal end to a telling fortnight in the republic.
Skipper Cane was doing his best to stay positive in the wake of yet another major All Blacks disappointment, but, unlike his coach, did not plunge down the spiral of denial. He was at least honest enough to concede it was another performance that left plenty to be desired.
“It’s one of the great challenges in test footy, playing South Africa over here, and the hostility of the crowd and the noise… if anything, and speaking on behalf of a lot of the boys, you love that backs against the wall , us versus them and the stadium situation.
“Early on they threw a lot of punches in terms of their attack and we did well to absorb a lot. I was pretty happy with where we were at in terms of the scoreboard going into halftime (3-10), considering we hadn’t got much going on attack. As it turned out we continued to not quite get enough going, and that was the test match.”
Cane lamented the All Blacks’ inability to dictate terms at the breakdown where they found their momentum halted on multiple occasions. It was just one of many areas where the more urgent, more intense Boks dominated them
“One of the keys was our inability to get enough momentum, with Malcolm Marx, in particular, getting over the ball a number of times,” added Cane. “Normally it comes down to the ball-carrier winning the collision and then snapping the ball back in a long placement, but our cleaners were almost half a second off and he was winning that race. Once he gets in a strong position over the ball he’s one of the toughest in the world to move.”
So, top Marx to the Boks. Cane was also honest enough to concede, as impressive as the South African defensive linespeed and smothering tackles were, individual skillsets let the All Blacks down. “Test rugby is another notch up … it’s less time, more pressure, but it’s still about executing the same basic skillsets.”
But the beleaguered skipper, whose lack of impact (four carries for a single metre) continues to make him a target for the team’s legion of critics, was adamant the All Blacks had not lost belief in themselves or their coaches.
“The belief is really strong within the group,” he added. “Even with five minutes to go, when the red card came, there was a genuine belief. It’s only something you can feel out on the field… the group’s belief in ourselves, and what we’re trying to achieve, is very high and when you’ve got that and an attitude to work hard, it’s a good recipe.
“We’ve just got to stick at it and it will turn. If we didn’t have those things in place, I’d be pretty worried, but the right ingredients are there.”
Ever the realist, Cane admitted the Springboks had been “awesome” in a clash they could easily have won by more.
“They know their game really well in terms of the set piece and trying to dominate the collisions and their kicking game created a lot of half-opportunities,” he said.
“But I don’t think there’s a lack of confidence in our team. We’re just not quite able to get across the line in terms of the performance we’re after, but we’ve certainly made some strides.”