Such suspicions were reinforced when Andre Markgraff, Christie's successor, was forced to resign after the publication of a tape recording in which he could be heard voicing casual racist slurs. Under his replacement, the inexperienced Carel du Plessis, morale plummeted as the team produced unrecognisably poor performances against the 1997 Lions and in the Tri- Nations tournament.
Enter Nick Mallett, the fast-talking, cosmopolitan Oxford graduate who won the Currie Cup four times as a No 8 forward with Western Province in the 1980s before growing tired of South African attitudes and emigrating to serve his coaching apprenticeship in Italy and France. Mallett's broader horizons turned out to be just what the troubled Springboks needed, and now they stand on the brink of history, aiming for a victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday that would be their 18th in a row, a new world record to erase that of Brian Lochore's All Blacks.
Much has been heard of Mallett's success in transforming his squad from the surly, introverted Boer archetype into a bunch of outgoing, sociable world citizens. But the job began on the pitch, and when we met this week at the team's Mayfair hotel I asked him first of all to identify the keys to the team's tactical evolution.
"I've always believed that the selection is where you start," he said. "You've got to select a side that you believe has the ability to go out and achieve the game plan. You've got to be incredibly disciplined, and you've got to know the rules. South African rugby has often been let down by ill-discipline because the players have been over-motivated and haven't used their brains. They've just piled in, confusing commitment and focus with uncontrolled aggression. I think we've improved that."
Second, in an emphasis increasingly to be heard among the coaches of the top international sides, comes defence. "You have to get people who make it difficult for the opposition to score. This team has a real defensive bloody-mindedness. You can't go on the field and say `I want you all to tackle' when you're picking people who palpably can't. You can't have five guys in there who are going to let you down. You just mustn't pick them."
Third, and most revolutionary in Springbok terms, is the use of the imagination. "You can't say that we only play it through the forwards or we only play it wide or we only kick it. We try our best to mix it up and make it difficult for opposition sides to defend against us. We want to try to be unpredictable."
Mallett himself has lived anything but a predictable life. Born 42 years ago in Hertfordshire he was six weeks old when his father, a housemaster at Haileybury who sometimes opened the bowling for Kent in the summer holidays and reached the final of the British Open squash tournament, accepted a post as head of the English department at a new school in what was then Rhodesia. Seven years later the offer of a headmastership took the family to South Africa.
The memory of A W H Mallett, who died three years ago at the age of 70, is clearly an enduring source of inspiration for his elder son, who read English and history at the University of Cape Town before following his father to Oxford, where he studied politics and philosophy and gained a double Blue for rugby and cricket. "He was a great role model, and it's a big regret that he's not around. My younger brother is a headmaster, and he would have loved that. And he would have enjoyed what's been going on with the rugby."
He certainly imbued his offspring with a love of games - not all of them of the physically confrontational variety. Bridge, for instance, was a family obsession. "I played a lot with my parents, and at school and at Oxford, to a not very high standard, although I got to the semi-finals of the university championships. But I really improved when I was in France." St-Claude, the town in the Jura mountains where he ran a bistro and coached the local rugby club, had a European championship bridge team. "I played for three hours every afternoon for about two years," he explained.
He moved back to South Africa with his wife and two young daughters at around the time of Mandela's election, eventually landing a job as coach to Boland, a provincial side competing in the Currie Cup. In 1996 he was invited to become Andre Markgraff's assistant on the Springboks' tour to Argentina, France and Wales, helping restore the unity and morale of a squad torn apart by the rivalries and jealousies that emerged in the wake of the World Cup success.
In Mallett's view, the team had played above themselves to beat a superior New Zealand side, thus arousing unrealistic expectations at home and setting up the players as pawns in the battle between Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. "The whole thing fell down like a pack of cards, and there was a lot of bitterness. Financially it was a total shambles, added to which there was real infighting among the players. It all had to be resolved. I came on board as an assistant coach and I felt that it went well and that we'd got over it. It was a cleansing period for South African rugby."
But then came the coach's grotesque downfall, which gave no pleasure to Mallett. "I like Markgraff. He's no more or less racist than any of that type of Afrikaner brought up under those conditions and talking to another Afrikaner in a private conversation. He's a highly educated man, and it was an absolute aberration. But there's no excuse for it, and once it was published he had to resign. Which threw South African rugby into another crisis."
At that juncture Mallett was overlooked in favour of Carel du Plessis, who was given the job "not on coaching ability, because he'd never coached a side before, but more on his personality. He was a God-fearing, clean- cut, decent person, and South African rugby was sick and tired of controversy. I think they didn't trust me, having been overseas and being quite outspoken. I wasn't their cup of tea."
In fact Mallett claims to have learnt his man-management techniques from being "mishandled and mistreated'' as a player, not appreciated or listened to by dictatorial coaches. "But by the time they did turn to me there was a sense of relief from the players, from the media, and from the supporters. I really felt I had their support."
To the liberal standing on the outside, the only disappointing element of the current Springbok first team is its all-white complexion (although there are several non-whites in the squad and in the management team). "Well, it's interesting," he said spiritedly, although his deep-set eyes suggested that he was keeping a feeling of irritation politely under control. "As the rugby coach of South Africa, I'm the only one in the world who is faced with this question. No one asks England or France why there isn't a black guy. In South Africa we happen to have a lot of blacks and coloureds, but rugby has traditionally been a white sport. In the past, when it was an amateur game, you could say, right, we'll stick someone in - it looks quite good, politically it looks correct, but we're getting to a situation where you're getting paid a salary and players are hired and fired on the results, and therefore I don't think you can start mixing too much up with merit now at this level.
"I always answer this question by saying that it's my job to get results for South African rugby and also to make sure that the white people representing the Springbok side are good representatives of South Africa, that they're not bigoted and they aren't arrogant or insular or racist, that we come across as being really good ambassadors of South Africa - the whole of South Africa, not one little corner. We're the only national side that sings the anthem from first verse to last - not even the soccer side does that."
For the future, Mallett believes in a programme of affirmative action. ``There must be scholarships for children who can't afford to go to a traditional rugby-playing school. I guarantee you I could go out there and get 150 bursaries from the top 30 schools for non-white players, and I'd get any number of businesses to sponsor their fees. Out of 150 maybe we'll get 50, and out of those 50 maybe we'll get 20 into provincial rugby, and out of those 20 maybe we'll get five into a Springbok team. That would be a wonderful thing."
It sounds like the sort of challenge a headmaster's son might relish. "Well, it would be incredibly rewarding," he admitted. "I could think of nothing better than seeing a programme like that through. But I want to see this through to the World Cup and do a good job. Then I'll take another look. Two years is not a long time in international terms. And at the moment I'm loving it... whatever happens on Saturday."
THE SPRINGBOK LEGEND: BENCHMARKS IN THE QUEST FOR SOUTH AFRICAN INVINCIBILITY
Triumph in New Zealand: The class of Philip Nel
"Skrum, skrum, skrum." The 1937 vintage was not pretty, but pretty rugby never buttered too many parsnips down New Zealand way. There was a fair sprinkling of genius in the back division - Gerry Brand, Tony Harris and Danie Craven (right), inventor of the scrum-half's dive pass, live on as legends - but when the tourists lost the first match of a three- Test series in Wellington, they turned to their pack for inspiration.
Here was Springbok rugby at its most ruthless: Boy Louw, Jan Lotz, Ferdie Bergh and Lucas Strachan ground out victory in a brutal second Test in Christchurch and then scrummaged their rivals into the Auckland mud to win the decider by a distance. It took the All Blacks another 59 years to get even by winning a series in South Africa.
Supremacy in Europe: Basil Kenyon's team
The greatest Grand Slam side ever to cross the equator? Those who saw them refuse to be persuaded otherwise. An eye injury suffered by Kenyon at Pontypool early in the tour resulted in the captaincy passing to Hennie Muller (right), the so-called "Windhond" of the Northern Transvaal. Together with Basie van Wyk and Stephen Fry, Muller formed a loose combination of immense authority and, with tight forwards of the quality of Jaap Bekker, Chris Koch and Salty du Rand digesting opposing packs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the three of them were able to run riot across the northern hemisphere. Scotland went down by 44 points, France by 25 and Ireland by 17 - vast margins in an era when a three-point victory was considered decisive.
Dreamtime in Johannesburg: Francois Pienaar's world-beaters
Talk about seizing the day. South Africa had been unofficial world champions for much of their rugby-playing history but under the enlightened leadership of a triumvirate of switched-on liberals - Pienaar (right), Kitch Christie and Morne du Plessis - they not only secured the official crown at their first attempt but reinvented the Springbok jersey as a symbol of an inclusive future rather than a divisive past. They did not possess a truly outstanding pack, although the emergence of Os du Randt as a loose-head prop of enormous stature, both physical and metaphorical, helped no end. The back division, inspired by Andre Joubert and Chester Williams, was superb, as was Christie's coaching. A triumph of iron will and self-belief.
Apotheosis at Twickenham? Gary Teichmann's Boks Seventeen down, one to go. We already recognise these Springboks as a more complete act than their World Cup-winning predecessors, especially now the astonishing Bobby Skinstad (right) has been released from the replacements' bench. Victory over England on Saturday will do more than lend weight to a slice of sporting opinion; it will set down the facts in reinforced concrete. While Brian Lochore's All Blacks of three decades ago won their 17 consecutive Tests over a four-year period, Teichmann's Boks have done something similar in 16 months: a testament to both their physical and psychological resilience. Supremely functional rather than sublime, they possess genuine game-breakers in Skinstad and Joost van der Westhuizen. The record book awaits them.Reuse content