Rugby Union: Letter from Johannesburg: Springboks looking sickly

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NO ONE saw the crossroads coming in South African rugby, it seems. Not even Nick Mallett, just a few months ago more popular among supporters here than Nelson Mandela.

Yet as the Springboks await the arrival of New Zealand and Australia for next month's return matches in the Tri-Nations Championship, there can be no underestimating the size of the problem they face.

Mallett was the coach entrusted to lead the Springboks out of the mess that his predecessor, Carel du Plessis, had got them into when losing to the 1997 Lions. The charismatic former Oxford Blue enjoyed instant success, and in the space of 15 months the Springboks were back on the high road to success, equalling the world record for consecutive Test wins, 17. Everything he touched seemed to turn to green and gold and his achievements were even recognised by Britain's rugby writers, who named him their personality of 1998.

The crossroads was reached when England snapped that streak, at Twickenham last December, but Mallett, as we are now finding out, proceeded straight through, oblivious to the bumpy ride that was to follow. The defeat was put down to fatigue after a punishing year, which had included a clean sweep of the Tri-Nations.

In two Tests against Italy, only eight weeks ago, the Springbok Class of '99 was being paraded, Mallett told the nation. Andre Joubert, playing some of the best rugby of his career, was informed he had no future at the highest level. Gary Teichmann, a tireless and respected No 8 who had captained the Boks to their world record run, was being pushed nearer to the precipice, with Bobby Skinstad lined up as the man of the new millennium.

The wins against Italy - the second an embarrassing 101-0 stroll- impressed no one. Not South Africa's top rugby politicians, who had seen a perfect opportunity wasted in blooding black faces at international level against soft opposition. Not the players, who were becoming suspicious of Mallett's selection policies, with a sense of deja vu surrounding the call-ups of several Cape Town-based players. And not Mallett himself, who warned against complacency in the bigger matches to come.

Then came a game few wanted, against Wales, to honour the opening of the new Millennium Stadium.In the build-up, the Springboks were, we now know, addressed by the South African Rugby Football Union chief executive, Rian Oberholzer. "Accept change or find yourself another job," the players were informed, as the clamour for affirmative action grew louder. When Oberholzer left the room, the players booed him. That a motivated Wales thumped a flat, disjointed Bok side, was of no surprise to insiders, but stunned a nation of one-eyed supporters who have found unity in varied sporting success over the past four years.

If there is a rugby god, it might be said he doesn't support South Africa. If off-field distractions weren't enough, the Springboks were being punished both by the opposition and by a spate of serious injuries affecting many of the established players.

Mallett continued to put his faith in the Cape-based talent, encouraging provincialism and alienating himself from the rest of the country. "The Stormers didn't win the Super 12, they are not going to win the Tri Nations or World Cup," said those who saw more than half the national side comprised of players from the Cape.

Thus far they have been proved right. Record defeats at the hands of the All Blacks (28-0) and Australia (32-6), with the threat of more to come in the Tri-Nations on 7 and 14 August respectively.

Teichmann has been privately informed that he is not the man to lead the Springboks into World Cup battle. Insiders have it that Mallett will entrust the flanker Johan Erasmus with the captaincy duties and Skinstad - the David Beckham of South African rugby - with the No 8 jersey.

That speculation itself has led to jammed switchboards at radio stations and newspapers.

South Africans are in no doubt where they stand in the world's pecking order. At best three, behind New Zealand, in another hemisphere altogether, and Australia, and under threat from England and Wales.

Last week Mallett even suggested that his side should learn to cheat intelligently, like some New Zealanders and Australians, comments which led to his All Black counterpart, John Hart, remarking that they were "from a man who is panicking".

The South African public has a more simplistic solution. Entrust Teichmann with the captaincy and look to experience, in the form of Joost van der Westhuizen, Henry Honiball, Andre Snyman, Mark Andrews, Os du Randt, Ruben Kruger and even Joubert.

After the 1999 World Cup there will be four years to rebuild, they say. Will Mallett listen to the cry, is the question every rugby follower here is asking. Time is fast running out to get the sick Springboks back on their feet.

Gary Lemke