Rugby Union: Boks' stride loses its spring

Paul Stephens, in Cape Town, reports on the reaction to a bitter defeat
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The Independent Online
The Springboks do not like the taste of defeat. Deeply ingrained in the Springbok psyche is the fear of losing which, coupled with the relentless necessity of winning, underpins the massive self-confidence of the World Cup holders.

A Lions' victory was neither contemplated by the South African squad, nor remotely envisaged from within the home media corps or the Springboks' highly vocal and devoted Afrikaaner supporters. Well before the end of this match, as dramatic and thrilling a Test as there has been in recent years, the drumbeat had an Irish, Scottish, Welsh and, at times it has to be said, English resonance to it.

There was no triumphalism from the Lions' management any more than there was from the hordes of Lions well-wishers who for days had been forced- fed on a diet of not if, but how wide would be the margin of the Springboks' victory by the one-eyed local press and television.

It is a measure of how badly the Lions' win has been received in South Africa that some commentators are already calling for the head of Carel du Plessis, unless the Springboks can level the series at King's Park, Durban on Saturday. Du Plessis, the tenderfoot South African coach with no previous experience at international level, who was feeling his way after the controversial dismissal four months ago of Andre Markgraaff for some unguarded racist remarks, is now feeling intense pressure.

Du Plessis, once a gifted winger in an exceptional Western Province back line, on Saturday night, bore the concerned look of a man about to undergo heart surgery. His plight not helped by those around him like Gert Smal - his assistant with responsibility for coaching the forwards - who may well be hoping for divine intervention, before he can come to terms with the way the Lions' forwards refused to submit.

This was where the South Africans, apparently, had an unassailable superiority. But the Lions disrupted their platform, took full advantage of Naka Drotske's poor throwing, and with Ireland's Jeremy Davidson in full flight at the line-out, the Lions' forwards waxed stronger as the game went into its final phase.

By then newcomer Edrich Lubbe had departed with a hamstring problem and he is likely to be replaced by Hennie Le Roux, who is next up to feel the full force of Scott Gibbs' tackling. Drotske might have to forfeit the hooker's place to Jamie Dalton if the latter's fitness problems have been resolved.

Among several of the South Africans' problems is the realisation that they do not possess the strength in depth of the Lions. Their No 1 provincial team, Natal, the Currie Cup holders - admittedly without their six Springboks - were swept imperiously aside by the Lions a week previously, with no one in their team suggesting he could make the step up to claim a Boks jersey except perhaps flanker Wayne Fyvie.

But Du Plessis is not short of flankers; he is just being forced to come to terms with a shortage of self-belief. That essential ingredient was put through the shredder by the Lions at Newlands.

Had Joost Van der Westhuizen scored the try that Matt Dawson turned the game with, the Northern Transvaal scrum-half would have been assigned the freedom of Cape Province. I hope the Mayor of Northampton is reading this.