EXCLUSIVE: Former Kiwi scrumhalf shares views on All Black dominance, current state of Springbok rugby
Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-All Black scrumhalf MARK ROBINSON talks about the men in black’s dominance of the world game, the state of Springbok rugby and the Test in Wellington on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Springbok rugby?
Mark Robinson: When watching the Wallaby-Springbok match over the weekend, the main criticism I had of the Boks is that they are still too one-dimensional on an offensive front. There were attacking opportunities against Argentina the week before as well and their players were tucking the ball under the arm and crashing it up rather than looking for the offload. Within the South African rugby landscape, they need to work on making sure that all their Super Rugby teams are playing a better style of rugby and not the tuck-and-run style, which is very easy to defend against. If the Springboks can shift the point of attack and not prove so predictable they can ask questions of New Zealand’s defence at Westpac Stadium. They need to look for those offloads with the player on the outside. If they change the point of attack, they can then get over the advantage line and create attacking momentum. Meanwhile, they have some strong backs, but the defence on the outside from the wingers has been found wanting at times and that will have to be shored up pretty quickly.
Sport24 asked: Is New Zealand’s dominance hurting the world game?
Mark Robinson: What the All Blacks are trying to do is change the game in terms of how it’s played and we are asking other international teams to play catch-up and get up to our level. New Zealand will never apologise for what they are trying to do and other teams need to try and reach our level. The fact that the All Blacks have only lost once in 52 Tests at home since 2009 is pretty impressive - they don’t lose at home very often. The All Blacks’ home record is something which shoots fear into every team that travels there and that is what you want. It’s a big advantage and the All Blacks have their mana - a real presence - about them. We lost if for a while and then brought it back. We want teams to be scared of us at home in the same way South Africa want teams to be afraid of them when they play at Ellis Park. It takes years to build that tradition and history. I believe the All Blacks need to lose one or two games leading into the World Cup, so that everyone else thinks that they have got a chance. It would show there is a chink in the All Black armour and, from a spectator point of view, it would make it entertaining. The All Blacks are doing some great things in terms of the way they are playing the game and the players that are coming through. However, when the All Blacks lose and win records are snapped, the whole rugby world pricks up its ears and says, “Alright, the All Blacks can be beaten.” The All Blacks lost the second Test to the British and Irish Lions in Wellington, so they can be defeated at home. I like it when a team comes along and fronts up to the challenge.
Sport24 asked: Is the All Black-Springbok rivalry a thing of the past?
Mark Robinson: I believe the All Black-Springbok rivalry will always be there. You can’t change history and I think that is what makes the All Black-Springbok games great. It’s a shame that last year’s absolute smashing in Albany happened but, to be fair, the Boks came back well in Cape Town in the reverse fixture and pushed the All Blacks to the limit with a fantastic performance. You want the Springboks to win one of the Rugby Championship matches against the All Blacks because world rugby needs that rivalry to be fierce. Even as a proud New Zealander and former All Black, I want the Springboks to be highly competitive against the All Blacks because it’s great for viewing. Rassie Erasmus has got a tough task on his hands, but I foresee the Springboks being up for it on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk?
Mark Robinson: I have watched De Klerk play for Sale Sharks and I have been impressed. He had a fantastic first season for the Manchester-based club and his form has continued for the Springboks. As long as De Klerk remains accurate in everything he does, shifts the ball and hits the right runners, South Africa are going to be hard to keep up with. In terms of work-ons, De Klerk has come in form some criticism for his tactical kicking and South Africa either have to kick the ball out or put it up high enough to make it a contestable. Against Argentina, the Springboks produced two or three aimless kicks. They found a man in too much space, didn’t apply enough kick-chase pressure and they were duly punished. If De Klerk and the other kickers in the Bok team are accurate as far as their kicking execution is concerned, they will take away a key weapon from the All Blacks’ arsenal.
Sport24 asked: Will lucrative overseas deals harm New Zealand rugby?
Mark Robinson: In terms of the All Blacks, there is always a threat of players leaving. However, we are so thankful that there is a conveyor belt of players to take over. What the All Blacks are good at is ensuring that they keep players in key positions. They ensure that they get the experience and the requisite game time, so that they will be ready to step in and not be caught out at Test level. In the Springboks’ case, in the past they have lost key individuals in key positions - No 8, 9 and 10 - and they have had to throw a rookie in and it has affected their game... To retain their top talent the NZRU have had to up the amount of money they are paying the players. However, the carrot of wearing the All Black jersey has more value than an extra zero in a contract. If a player is looking at a 250k contract in New Zealand and can get a 400k contract in the UK, is that extra 150K worth giving up an All Black jersey for? That is kind of the value that the All Black jersey boasts. However, when you reach your mid-to-late twenties, you have been in and out of the All Blacks side and haven’t been a regular starter; overseas clubs target you because they know you will be considering your future and the financial value you can attain in the marketplace. I headed to the UK in 2003 to play for the Saints because I needed a change and was without family commitments as a bachelor at the time. I was in and out of the All Black set-up and I needed a new challenge. When you are playing in New Zealand, and for the All Blacks, you are in a very small bubble and you can get caught up in it. I needed a change of environment. It was the right move for me and I had a fantastic career in the UK.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the 96th All Black-Springbok contest?
Mark Robinson: The All Blacks will definitely smell blood in the water and, if the Springboks are not up to it in the first 10 to 15 minutes, it could prove a very difficult day for them. However, if the Boks front up physically, we are in for a game. When the Boks have beaten the All Blacks in the past, it has always been around physicality and their ability to bash them. They have bullied and outmuscled the men in black. However, the Springboks won’t be able to beat the All Blacks by playing 10-man rugby. I believe the Boks needs to play the game at speed against the All Blacks. They are also not going to win by kicking penalties. I remember when I was still working for SuperSport and the Lions took on the Chiefs at their own game a couple of seasons ago and beat them against all the odds. It was a fantastic performance from the Lions owing to their speed and ability to shift the point of attack. I believe the only way to beat New Zealand teams is by outmuscling them and playing them at their own game. The Boks have the players, but they need to ensure they click on the day. The Boks showed glimpses of being able to play against Argentina and Australia, but their defence was found wanting. If your defence is not up to scratch against the All Blacks in New Zealand, they will absolutely punish you... If the wind is swirling and it’s raining in The Cake Tin, it’s not completely out of the Boks’ reach, but they will have to tighten up and stop the All Blacks from playing expansively.