Lack of self-discipline could cost Springboks dear

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The Independent Online
They say a week is a long time in politics. In rugby it can feel like a lifetime.

Just seven days ago the Wallabies were down for the count after an indifferent debut in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. We'd met the Springboks and lost to the better team and then watched as our other main rivals, the All Blacks, England, Scotland and France, recorded wins in their respective first pool games.

It was not a pleasant experience. The depression and grief which consequently infected the whole of our squad was relieved only in part by our subsequent performances against Canada and Romania. Now those games are behind us and in the quarter-finals next weekend we face the old foe, England, in our first rematch with the Five Nations' champions since the final of the 1991 World Cup.

For the Wallabies the next week will be a regrouping effort, drawing on the lessons learned thus far.

Canada were never going to be an easy proposition and our team statistics show just how hard it was. Willie Ofahengaue alone made 21 tackles in the match, with the second-row forwards Eales and Waugh adding 12 apiece. In all the Wallabies made 173 clean first-up tackles in 80 minutes, which must be some sort of record, illustrating the sort of physical commitment needed even against nations which some people would (wrongly) dismiss as second-raters.

The same can be said for Romania. They gave us a tough run on Saturday, showing a determination to tackle and not be intimidated by reputation alone. We eventually ran in six tries for a 42-3 win which, after the stuttering performance against Canada, keeps us moving towards the sort of form we'll need against a vastly improved England.

In a team sense, the All Blacks have also shown the right stuff. They're playing with confidence, style and controlled aggression. To win as well as they did against both Ireland and Wales should not be under- estimated and they look every bit the favoured nation they've now been dubbed. They are already playing better than anyone else in South Africa and they will improve.

So too the Springboks continue to get better and build on the strengths we all knew they had. With the advantage of playing at home they have lifted their game noticeably and opponents find they aren't so much playing 15 men as a whole nation. They will also get stronger as the tournament progresses.

The Springboks' win against Canada on Saturday night may have been marred by a brawl, but they didn't allow their line to be crossed once. To combine attack and defence in such a well-constructed package is something we all aim for in coaching. The chief concern for their management now must be to make sure the Springboks never again allow themselves to be so easily baited by an opponent into fighting.

Without self-discipline a side is lost in a competition this close. With the major prize now getting closer, they'll rue any loss precipitated by player dismissals.

Perhaps the side with most cause for regret after the final round of pool matches are Scotland. I thought they played superbly for 82 minutes on Saturday and were only let down at the finish by a clinically executed French try. After all the hard work they have put in during the Five Nations it must be heartbreaking to now turn around and start again with a week to build up for the All Blacks.

Still Scotland shouldn't panic. They know how well they can play and it's simply a matter of focusing on the good things that came out of the game with France. Scotland scored a good try and showed their traditional willingness to take the man on in the tackle. Neither of these attributes will go astray in a contest against the All Blacks.

Scotland have never beaten New Zealand, but if they can recover their composure, then they have their chance next weekend in Pretoria.

As for France, I think they are beginning to look ominously composed. The discipline has returned to their game and they have benefited from the lack of distraction which comes from being out of the media spotlight. Scotland placed them under enormous physical and psychological pressure on Saturday night which they withstood and then turned around to score the try of the match during extra time.

It has been some time since a French side has shown such commendable coolness under fire. The last occasion was the series-winning victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand. If the French now start to replicate that form every other team in the World Cup will be looking over their shoulder at the men in red, white and blue.

Ireland have also shown that their courage, commitment and passion will stand them in good stead from here on in. They played intelligently against Wales yesterday and showed what results are possible by playing positive rugby. Ireland have the unerring ability to frustrate any opposition with a swarming defence and their rejuvenated attack enables them to convert this pressure into points. Wales, on the other hand, are left with a long flight home to contemplate what might have been and begin the long preparation needed to ready themselves for the 1999 tournament.

Looking ahead to the quarter-finals, the pressure will finally begin to tell on the eight remaining nations. Judging by what we experienced in the final rounds of 1991, everyone will be only too well aware that teams can ill afford to drop a game. Sudden death means just that: one loss and you're on the next plane home.

The two teams which can best soak up this pressure and not choke in the face of overwhelming expectations should be left standing for the final. Right now that is the last thing on the Australian team's mind.

England are the total subject of our concentration from now. We respect them despite having beaten them in our last meeting and Australia will be taking nothing for granted. I don't think England have really hit their straps yet and they will be a much better team after their strong win yesterday.

After that the prospect of playing the All Blacks or Springboks should concentrate the mind wonderfully. The Wallabies or England will have that opportunity soon enough.

Interview: Simon Kent