Rugby Union: Belly-up Springboks racked by unrest

Chris Hewett finds South Africans struggling to come to terms with defeat
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The Independent Online
Panic, hysteria, sackcloth and ashes. There is no rational reason why two narrow Test defeats at the hands of Fran Cotton's wonderfully tenacious but necessarily opportunistic Lions should signal South African rugby's descent from the high peaks of heroism into the pits of zeroism, but cold-eyed logic tends to be a scarce commodity when the Springboks go belly-up before the disbelieving eyes of their own supporters.

Twenty-three years ago, Willie John McBride and his British Isles invincibles drove a stake the size of Cleopatra's Needle through the heart of Bokke supremacy, prompting questions in the South African parliament and the famous ministerial delegation to the team dressing-room before the decisive third Test in Port Elizabeth.

Cotton, a humble foot soldier back in 1974, has not managed to generate quite the same degree of consternation this time around, but the manager's victorious squad have certainly left their hosts at extreme odds with one another.

Suddenly, the talk is of Springbok vulnerability rather than impregnability. Three Tests into his career as national coach, Carel du Plessis is being savaged in public by a battalion of talking heads and bad-mouthed in private by a handful of discontented players who question his ability to deliver at the very top level.

Arthrob Petersen's managerial performance is being examined in microscopic detail, the South African Rugby Football Union finds itself mocked and abused from all directions and, horror of horrors, there is even a strong groundswell of opinion against the presidential Big Daddy from Johannesburg, Dr Louis Luyt.

With the All Blacks and the Wallabies about to pitch up for the Tri-Nations tournament, the air of pessimism is all-pervasive. Having just lost back- to-back home series for the first time this century - New Zealand won 2-1 here last summer - the South Africans are undergoing one of their periodic bouts of anguished breast-beating and, until they start feeling good about themselves again, not even the murder rate in Johannesburg and the crime explosion in Cape Town will knock the rugby debate off the front pages.

Yet the thread that runs through Springbok rugby history is one of irrepressibility, an ability to recover quickly and completely from setbacks that seemed terminal but soon came to be seen as cathartic. The All Blacks, who arrive in South Africa next week for the 19 July Test at Ellis Park, know that to be the case. As Colin Meads, perhaps the greatest New Zealand forward of all time, said yesterday: "What is happening to South African rugby right now may be just the incentive they need to bounce back.

Meads is quite right, for the Lions' series victory does not make the Boks a bad side; indeed, they possess a full-back, a scrum-half and at least five forwards of undisputed world class and, as soon as du Plessis insists on complete control over selection and reintroduces Joel Stransky and Hennie le Roux to the midfield equation, the whole will once again be greater than the sum of its parts.

It is, then, a question of attitude, for in many ways the Boks have been the architects of their own downfall. Their arrogant underestimation of the Lions' capabilities, particularly as a stonewalling defensive unit, led them to abandon the Vision Thing in favour of a ludicrously macho infatuation with physical contact and for all the possession they hoovered up in Durban last weekend - the percentage was something like 75-25 in their favour - the Boks persisted in rumbling straight towards the first- up tacklers. Even had every Lion been taken off on a stretcher by half- time, their opponents would probably have preferred to run into the referee rather than attack space.

Fortunately from South Africa's point of view, du Plessis understands the need for change, both at the top and throughout the labyrinthine structure of Springbok rugby. "We need to be frank and realise that there are alterations that must be made to playing style and overall approach that cannot happen overnight," he said. "We have to get real. Law changes and the constantly changing way the game is played internationally mean we cannot stand still and just keep doing things the way we always have."

The test is whether the one-time Prince of Wings can bring about that change within a realistic timescale. The Springbok rugby public is not exactly renowned for its patience and self-restraint and now that Bafana Bafana, the national football team, are beginning to capture the white South African imagination as well as the black, speed is of the essence.

Many provincial unions have committed themselves whole-heartedly to development programmes among the vast non-white population - rugby thrives in the townships of the Eastern Cape and, remarkably enough, there is a significant growth of interest in football-crazy Soweto - but the fast-tracking of talented black and coloured players needs to be accelerated if rugby is not to become fossilised as the irrelevant preserve of a tiny elite.

When Francois Pienaar received the World Cup from Nelson Mandela on that extraordinary day in Johannesburg almost exactly two years ago, the feel-good factor spread across the country like a sea of warm honey; from the opulent vineyards of Stellenbosch to the street corner shebeens of the Sowetan maze, Springbok rugby was something to which a glass could be raised.

There is no earthly reason why the Boks should not revisit those heights, but if they want to do it quickly they will have to show a greater sense of perspective and unity of purpose than they are demonstrating at present.