Engulfed by a new wave

Remodelled South Africa spring into action to raise the standard and deliver forceful message to the world
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The Independent Online
WHEN they re-entered the rarefied atmosphere of international competition three years ago, the Springboks had their in-bred arrogance so savagely punctured by the reigning world champions, Australia, that rugby, the very symbol of Afrikaner superiority, was seriously threatened. But in Cape Town last Thursday, in the fresh green-and-gold finery of the new South Africa, a force emerged as formidable as anything seen in the world game since the Australians themselves broke through more than a decade ago.

Then, it was the instinctive grace and sparkling invention of the Ella brothers, Slack, Hawker and the precocious prodigy David Campese. But at Newlands, Campese looked weary and confused, a forlorn stranger standing at the gates of rugby's new and dynamic age. The Australian wing has perpetrated some crass acts of extreme folly before, yet, until last Thursday, he has almost invariably ended up in credit. In that tumultuous opening match, however, time seemed to have caught up with him. The fact that he was not alone in his misery is of little consolation to him.

But before we herald a new reign and a new ruler, it should be remembered that the kings are not yet dead and for all the smug satisfaction in the England camp at Campese's discomfort I suspect that they would much rather be facing the Springboks than the Australians in the quarter-final.

It is highly improbable that the defending champions will play as badly again, while it is hard to imagine that South Africa can find a peak higher than the one they scaled in Cape Town. It was a masterly demonstration in the art of channelling limited resources. The Springboks didn't have much of a line-out and, on the day, not even Mark Andrews, their champion jumper, could make an impression. But so unerringly did they lock on to their opponents' possession that young George Gregan at scrum-half, expecting to find himself in armchair comfort, was fortunate not to end up in a bath chair.

Not only were Gregan's guns spiked to the extent that it wasn't until the final five minutes that he attempted his first break, but the Australians' heavy back-row artillery was also silenced. They had nothing to feed off, perplexed as much by the Springboks' pace and commitment to the tackle as they were by finding themselves so frequently in retreat from seemingly secure possession.

It was the Australians' fallibility with the ball in their hands which took us so completely by surprise. No country in the world, not even the French, look so composed in possession as do the Australians. No side is more ferociously committed to safeguarding that possession. But against South Africa their game was littered with elementary and corrosive errors, many of them unforced. Yet they lacked neither possession nor opportunities. Seldom have opponents so willingly given them the chance to counter-attack by kicking the ball deep. But the tactic which unhinged the All Blacks when England employed it at Twickenham two years ago worked again on this occasion. Astonishingly, the Australians were bereft of attacking ideas, their reluctance to improvise fuelling the South Africans' surging confidence.

If there was one moment which neatly encapsulated the Australians' predicament, it was midway through the second half when the situation was still retrievable and a score could have turned the game in the Australians' favour. An attacking scrum was formed close to the Springboks' line and the Australians called a back-row move. There were any number of options available but such was the raw power of the South African shove that not one of them could be taken. The macho Australian forwards, visibly shaken, never fully recovered.

If the contest was an enthralling exhibition of modern rugby as it is meant to be played, it was also a throwback to those halcyon days when the producers, conductors and strategists were not the coaches or the never-ending stream of peripheral advisers, but the half-backs. For all but the first quarter when Michael Lynagh was running the show, Joel Stransky and that handsome, dashing cavalier Joost van der Westhuizen were in charge. Elegant and coolly calculating, van der Westhuizen was everything that his opposite number, Gregan, was not. His eye for the gap was so sharp and sure that the Australian loose forwards could never allow him out of their sight. He was twice thwarted in his attempts to score, once when Derek Bevan, whose refereeing was almost without blemish, failed to allow advantage - although there was the hint of a knock-on - following the Australians blatant off-side. On another occasion, van der Westhuizen's perfectly weighted chip over the Australian line might have fallen more kindly for him but for the frenzied groping of other eager hands. He also missed the best scoring opportunity of the match late in the first half which, at the time, seemed crucial.

That it was not was in large measure due to his burgeoning self-assurance in the second half. Furthermore, Stransky was both the physical and intellectual link between his forwards and backs. He chose his moments with unfailing accuracy, knowing precisely when to hide, when to seek and when to pass. His try, which exposed an alarming slackness in the Wallabies' back-row defence, was a masterpiece of athleticism and quick thinking.

As the Springboks' halves grew in stature, so Lynagh's influence diminished. There was the incredible sight of the world's leading points-scorer missing two kicks from point-blank range. His line kicking lacked both length and accuracy, his confidence shaken as much by the profligacy of his own players as it was by the crushing defence of the Springboks. The remorseless defence of the Springboks was wondrous to behold, each succeeding tackle being more hysterically acclaimed than the last by a crowd quite intoxicated by the occasion.

That a game of such overwhelming importance and relentless physical intensity could proceed at this unremitting pace without one instance of foul play was a superb tribute to the discipline of both sides. It was also a reflection on the Bevan's authority. Unobtrusive yet positionally flawless and always in control, he set the standard for the weeks ahead, just as Jim Fleming did four years ago. But for the Springboks, even throughout those spells when they came under the severest pressure, to have conceded only four penalties was a miracle of self-restraint and collective will.

In a short time, Kitch Christie, the South African coach, has wrought change which goes far beyond the way the Springboks play the game. He has altered the their attitude, approach and philosophy and bear little resemblance to the swaggering misfits of three years ago. There is now a sense of realism and, dare one say it, humility in this side, embodied by the captain Francois Pienaar. After Thursday's ach-ievement he was deservedly sanctified by a crowd who, long after the players had departed, were celebrating what might yet be the most significant victory in South Africa's rugby history.

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