- The former All Black scrumhalf, who featured for his country from 1998 to 2001, talks about South Africa’s maligned style of play, and why Rassie Erasmus has been missed in Australia.
- The ex-Northampton Saint assesses South Africa’s United Rugby Championship entry and unpacks whether the domestic salary cap is sizeable enough to compete off-field.
- The three-Test All Black looks ahead to the return match between the All Blacks and Springboks in Gold Coast and explains why he expects a more comfortable win for the former.
Sport24 asked: Did the 100th All Black-Springbok Test live up to the occasion?
Mark Robinson: I thought parts of the centenary meeting between the two sides in Townsville did. The intensity was massive and it had all the ingredients of a typical Test match between the old foes, who have 100 years of history. I think the All Blacks – who conceded 24 turnovers – showed more nerves than the Springboks and the occasion possibly overwhelmed them. New Zealand made an uncharacteristically high number of handling errors. I thought that when Will Jordan scored for the All Blacks early on in the match it would serve as a confidence booster, but the pressure the Springboks applied on them from a defensive front was immense. South Africa possess a sound defensive structure which is their backbone and the All Blacks didn’t cope that well with their rush defence. The All Blacks would have been relieved to have come away with the win because they were involved in arm-wrestle against a Springbok side that isn’t playing much rugby. The All Blacks will look at it and say to themselves, “We have so much more.” If the All Blacks had caught a few more high balls, which they continuously dropped, they would have had an opportunity to really put South Africa under pressure on offence. The amount of unforced errors didn’t allow them to do so, but it speaks to the growing maturity in the All Blacks team that they could still win and seal the title.
Sport24 asked: What toll do you think Covid-19 has taken on the Springboks?
Mark Robinson: I think the Springbok team have done really well to come together and prove competitive considering that New Zealand and Australia have been much better prepared in terms of playing time under their belt. If you look at it from a coaching perspective they would have asked, “What is the best way to play if you haven’t been together as a team and having played much rugby for 18 months?” The answer is that you play a simple game of two or three plays and kick, with a strong accent on defence. It could be a stroke of genius from Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber. Their thinking could have been: If we want to play rugby under-prepared we need to keep the game simple. That could be exactly what they are doing. It could be a philopshy they are applying just for this period of time because they are massively under-prepared compared to the Australasian teams. However, from a South African perspective it worries me when their coach said post-match that he thought they deserved to win the 100th Test. I don’t believe the Boks should be happy with their performance. The Boks have a great defensive structure which is their calling card, but last Saturday they seemed quite content to pressure the All Blacks aerially and not play the game any other way.
Sport24 asked: How much has Rassie Erasmus’s absence in Australia been felt?
Mark Robinson: Rassie not travelling to Australia is probably why the Boks aren’t winning! (Laughs) But on a more serious note, I think South Africa miss Rassie’s presence and relied on his input throughout the British & Irish Lions series. Rassie helped control the nerves, change tactics and he could really deliver that message better than anyone else. I’ve played in teams when one of the players comes on and is yelling stuff at you. Half the time, you switch off and don’t hear the messages. But Rassie was literally coming up into the players’ faces and that really worked. Having played at that level, having someone come onto the field that you absolutely respect and know is giving the right messages is really important sometimes. It just calms a team down and is about giving communication to the right players. I’m sure Rassie is still pulling the strings in many ways even though he is back in South Africa, as he’s working remotely, but it doesn’t have the same effect. When you were so hands on like Rassie, it must have been hard for him to change and stay behind. But good on Rassie for trying to take a different approach and he must be commended for it.
Sport24 asked: Will a move to play up north better suit South African rugby?
Mark Robinson: It’s a shame that they have been taken away from Super Rugby, which was built purely on the southern hemisphere teams, but I think it’s great that South Africa’s top four franchises are now competing in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. The Lions were the only South African team to win in the first round of the competition, but it’s just a bit of an adjustment that will be required. I reckon they will be alright over the 18 rounds of a competition which runs from September to June. We must remember the South African teams are missing many internationals and once those players start feeding back into the teams, they should prove more competitive. With the top South African teams now playing in Europe, it will be interesting to see if it will stem the exodus of players to Europe. Part of the problem is that a R60-million salary cap within the SA rugby landscape is far too low and, with the Pound-Rand exchange rate at 20-1, South African sides aren’t even able to compete financially with clubs in the UK. Duane Vermeulen recently signed a deal with Ulster, but having a presence in the northern hemisphere may help halt the player drain.
Sport24 asked: How do you see the 101st All Black-Springbok Test going?
Mark Robinson: Both teams have much more to give and it’s going to be exciting to see how the Test match unfolds on Saturday. The pressure is off now that we have had the 100th game. It will be exciting to see what New Zealand will bring. I can’t see them making the same mistakes, but the question is will South Africa try to employ a different game plan? Will the Boks look to hold onto the ball and apply more pressure on attack the same way as they applied it on defence? I would like South Africa to look for their attacking play as opposed to the kick as a first form of any move… The All Blacks probably need to be a bit deeper on attack to allow for that Bok rush defence. I would imagine they would look to put a few chip kicks over the defence line and expect to see Beauden Barrett kick to his wingers out-wide because when you are rushing up there is always space out-wide. If the All Blacks can catch the high ball – they have picked two new wingers – and hold onto possession, I think they will run away with the game. I’m backing the All Blacks by a decent margin.