South Africa has a proud tradition at the Rugby World Cup. Mind you, I’m not referring to the one you’re thinking of. I’m referring to that tradition where in the lead up to every RWC tournament, the Springboks are written off by most pundits, and then proceed to fare well and even win the damn thing a couple of times. This year will be no different according to the eternal sunshine of my optimistic mind.
As a Bok fan reading this, most of us will feel despondent about our chances at this year’s RWC, now only weeks away. Two dismal defeats at the hands of our Australasian foes have the cynics among us forecasting a wretched end to the outcome of the Bok campaign in New Zealand. But one only needs to dig slightly below the surface of the build-up to this tournament to realise the Boks are in with a real shout to make history – again – and become the first team to not only win the trophy three times, but also the only team to ever defend the title.
Firstly, we need to put this farcical start to the Tri-Nations out of mind. These two results are inconsequential and will have no bearing on the outcome of the world cup. Television rights and the demanding coffers of the Sanzar committee have forced the hand of the Bok management in playing an under-strength team while nursing 23 front-line players back to peak fitness.
In a World Cup year, Sanzar should do fans and players a favour and play shortened three-match tournaments where the top players can get a decent warm-up to the RWC and fans can see the top players in action. Maintain the status quo of six test matches after 126 Super Rugby games and at least one nation will send a depleted team to the gallows.
Whether actually injured or not, these players should be rested bearing in mind the arduous season of Super Rugby that has gone before and the relative age of some senior players. And before anyone laments the years of experience of this team as reason to write them off as a bunch of old timers with no hope, I suggest closer inspection of the squad statistics, which make for interesting reading and analysis.
The likely squad to be announced by Pieter de Villiers to represent South Africa at this year’s RWC, will have an average age of 27 and an average number of Test caps of 42. The mere fact that stalwarts such as Victor Matfield and John Smit are north of 30 shouldn’t detract from the right blend of youth and experience this squad possesses. It’s also interesting to note that England’s victorious team of 2003, the only northern hemisphere team to ever hold the Webb-Ellis trophy aloft, was nicknamed “Dad’s Army” by the tabloid press in the build-up to that Australian tournament, due to the perceived age of the squad. Johnson himself was 33 years old and the average age of that team was coincidently also 27, when Johnnie Wilkinson kicked the winning drop-goal, deep into extra time.
This Bok coaching team have taken a pounding by the media as well as the armchair critics, as inevitably each coaching team does. Selections will never please everyone and coupled with the spectre of affirmative action selections, the men tasked with leading the pride of the nation will always be on a hiding to nothing. As a comparison, the New Zealanders lose out at a World Cup they expected to win and the public is happy to stick with the coaching team. However, when the Bok team wins, the media and public are quick to point out how the senior players are actually coaching the team and deserve the accolades of those wins. Apparently, these senior players stop coaching on occasion and the management team are to blame for the losses. You can’t have it both ways, and while it’s foolish to ignore the input of players with almost 100 test caps, the team is managed and coached by the Pieter de Villiers and his assistants, meaning that losses and victories should equally be attributed to their influence.
Under this management we have suffered some poor defeats where it seemed no game plans were present. But we have also enjoyed momentous victories that form the basis of my optimism for this world cup. Too easily we forget the bruising battle of the victorious 2009 British Lions tour, the Tri-Nations victory in 2009 that included a rare win in New Zealand, the humiliation of a French team at Newlands last year and the win that convinced me the Boks would win RWC 2011, the victory over England at Twickenham in November.
In that match a Bok side missing seven frontline players, outmuscled and outplayed England’s finest in front of a partisan crowd, on a freezing Twickenham pitch. It was this game where the Boks showed they had the squad depth necessary to win the world cup. But one-eyed fans won’t remember this 21-11 victory, choosing rather to focus on the unexpected loss to Scotland in conditions not even suitable for polar bear mating.
In resting and rehabilitating the “injured” troopers the management team have shown the maturity to take on the interim media bashing to best position the team for success in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The remaining two matches of the Tri-Nations will be a better indicator of the level these players are at and an opportunity to get them match-fit again.
Once the tournament kicks off in Wellington on 09/11 against the Welsh dragons, the Boks may just turn the displeasure of participating in the toughest pool group, into an advantage. If they manage to see off the “Jones’” and the ever-physical Polynesians without injury or defeat, the entire squad will be well prepared for the tougher elimination rounds that require a less glamorous style of play. Something to which the Boks are accustomed.
I often thought the reason South Africa and England, to a lesser extent, do so well at World Cups, is due to the fact that their natural style of play is what is required in tournament rugby. When the pressure is on and games are tight, 10-man rugby prevails as evidenced by the few number of tries scored in World Cup finals. New Zealand by comparison enjoy record scores in the pool stages as they wipe the floor with Rugby’s minnows and then have to curb their natural flair for the play-off stages and thereby leading to defeat.
If the bookies form guide is anything to go by, the Boks will meet Ireland in the quarter-final with the prospect of the All Blacks in a mouth-watering Auckland semi-final. That is, of course, unless France, so often the Achilles heel of New Zealand’s World Cup ambitions don’t cause an early upset in the Pool A’s main encounter.
One thing is for sure, at least one group will fail to adhere to bookies predicted outcomes, and that could even be in the Springbok’s group of Pool D, which I shall dub the “Physio’s pool of pain”. DM
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.