John Smit's 100th Test cap and rugby against a rampant All Black side in Soweto are worth getting excited about, but the rudderless Springboks are almost certainly gonna lose in SA rugby's big day out.
What a cruel, heartless bitch fate is. Just when P.Divvy found the wherewithal to admit he’d erred in his selections and recalled Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar to their starting positions, both are injured.
Not that these two gifted players can turn the tide alone, but the Springboks are desperately in need of some inspiration. Any inspiration. In fact, a lot of disheartened fans will just be happy if no one is sent off in the first 10 minutes.
It’s hard to remember a more bitter-sweet moment in recent Springbok history. John Smit, captain courageous, who has toiled manfully to his 100th Test cap is doing all he can to downplay the significance of this remarkable milestone – achieved by only 14 other players in world rugby. Smit certainly deserves the accolades, current form notwithstanding, having won a World Cup (2007), two Tri-Nations titles (2004 and 2009) and a series win over the British and Irish Lions (2009), along with the respect of the rugby world. Smit is a great character, a fearless leader with a calm head in a crisis and his surely unassailable record as the most “winningest” captain in world rugby will always stand.
But the Springboks of 2010 are a shambles, a pale shadow of the Lions-beating, World Champions of 2009. They haven’t showed up, let alone won anything significant since the 12-yearly Lions tour last year – in fact, since the second Test where Morné Steyn’s ice-in-his-veins kick sealed the series.
Playing the first Test in Soweto at FNB Stadium (the complex itself is also called Soccer City) is worth cheering as is Smitty’s century, but all of South Africa knows the Springboks are going to lose. The All Blacks need a solitary log point to capture this year’s competition and are within sight of the 17 consecutive Test wins record that Nick Mallett’s side of 1998 jointly hold with the 1938 All Blacks.
The current problems are there for all to see, not least of which is the lack of depth in the coaching staff and the bloody-mindedness of Peter de Villiers. No one laughs anymore at his convoluted sentences and more convoluted thinking.
After months of antagonism with Steyn, surely the most gifted young player in the Springbok set-up, he has been called up for the home games, but the country was told he was injured and couldn’t play. Amazing then that he played the night before the Soweto game in Racing Metro’s 36 -19 defeat to Montpellier back in Paris. Huh?
P.Divvy’s short-sightedness is now the stuff of legend. He has the best inside centre in world rugby for the past few seasons – Jean de Villiers – so he plays him on the wing. Ricky Januarie can’t break around the side of the buffet table, let alone the scrum, and his passing has become so slow and inaccurate that the ball seems like a bagel, but Pienaar sits warming the bench before being released to the Sharks where he gets injured.
Juan Smith is back, but Schalk Burger is suddenly being asked to play to the ball, for which he’ll obviously do his best, but it’s hardly ideal. The Boks have lacked go-forward, lacked a game plan and, crucially, lacked inspiration. Francois Hougaard is an exciting prospect and has a hunger we haven’t seen for a while as do the other youngsters in the side: Flip van der Merwe (the 11th father-son combination to play for the Boks; his father Flippie was a 130kg prop who apparently still holds the record for the heaviest Bok), Juan de Jongh and Gio Aplon. The latter two start at outside centre (Jacque Fourie is still suspended) and Zane Kirchner, though suspended, has simply not made the step-up to Test rugby.
“But,” as rugby writer Ryan Verde asks, “who in the heavies will lay the attacking platform needed for a gifted backline to prosper? Their ballistic missile Pierre Spies posed the threat of a pop gun on tour, easily nullified as a result of consistently being asked to break down a set defensive line. Will it be Juan Smith, who hasn’t played Test rugby since September 2009? Smit, who we’re told is in prime condition, even though he obviously isn’t? The fatigued Victor Matfield? The rookie Flip van der Merwe? Burger cannot fight a lone battle. Who then?”
Without Heinrich Brussouw, the Springboks have been useless at the breakdown. Francois Louw had a torrid time in his first two Tri-Nations Tests before being dropped for the third. But in Brussouw’s absence, a fetcher is still necessary.
And then there is the halo effect of world rugby. No, not Steve Job’s latest iMustHave, but Richie McCaw, who, to paraphrase Fake Steve Jobs, is gifted at “rehypnotising” the refs. Statistics emerged this week (on Twitter the week before) that show the disproportionate way refs deal with the McCaw-led All Blacks versus the Boks and Wallabies. In the first four games of this year’s Tri-Nations, the Springboks averaged a yellow card for every six penalties, seven to the Wallabies. The All Blacks averaged 43 penalties – while McCaw was given an official warning twice in the opening game for infringements 5m from his own goal line. Had he been a Bok or a Wallaby…
There is a vast amount of residual anger at the way McCaw “gets away with murder” as the rugby world hummed this week. “Richie is a very good player, but he does get away with a fair bit,” former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer muttered. “He tries to make it look as though he’s come through the gate but he hasn’t really. The entry point for his hands and arms is often from the side, and then he swings his bum around. And that’s on opposition ball,” Dwyer told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. “On his own team’s ball, he comes in from the side heaps of times. Straight in from the side. The refs tend not to referee the team with the ball as much as the team without it.”
The Telegraph also laid into McCaw calling him “a serial offender with a shopping list of illegal plays” and showing photos taken from TV footage of the Wallabies 22-16 loss to the Blacks. “Analysis of the opening Bledisloe Cup game shows McCaw flagrantly entering the side of the ruck at least seven times, and contesting kicks while offside on at least three occasions,” the Australian paper published. “But despite being captured repeatedly failing to enter the breakdown from behind the last man’s feet, McCaw proved ‘Mr Untouchable’ by escaping without a single offside penalty all night. Referee Craig Joubert only pinged McCaw twice for unrelated ruck offences.”
But last year, there was as much talk about Brussouw being a cheat for his uncanny ability to get to his feet and steal or slow down opposition ball. Pundits point to his stature – he’s a short guy with a low centre of gravity.
Which is all the more boggling that P.Divvy continues to pick six foot running flanks, and like Jake White before him, ignores the importance of a fetcher. At least White had a game plan, a bigger picture. No one can say that about De Villiers.
By Toby Shapshak
Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine and has twice been sports editor of the Mail & Guardian.
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