Rugby Union: New-look Boks show familiar quality

Mark Evans, the Saracens director of coaching, studies the changing of champions
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The Independent Online
And still they keep coming; the southern hordes receive their final reinforcements with this week's arrival of the world champions, South Africa. But this team bear very little resemblance to the side who won the ultimate prize other than the fact that they wear the same famous green shirts. Indeed the turnover of players is nothing short of remarkable - of the side which thrashed France in Paris yesterday only five made the 1995 World Cup squad (28 strong), let alone the team.

If ever an illustration was needed of the transient nature of sporting triumph then this would more than suffice. No longer is this the team of Pienaar, Christie, le Roux, Stransky, Joubert and Kruger. In common with England and Australia there have been wholesale changes on a massive scale. It makes you wonder whether such a lack of continuity is part of the reason behind the inconsistency all three teams have shown in the past 18 months.

They have got through a few coaches in the meantime as well - the Markgraaff fiasco was swiftly followed by the sad demise of Carel du Plessis and the poisoned chalice has now passed to Nick Mallett.

He has a great deal of European experience having played in England and France, which tends to mask the fact that very few of the playing squad have played at Twickenham before. Nevertheless the Springboks have many strengths. First and foremost their set scrum is extremely powerful. This autumn we have witnessed the Toulouse front row dominate the Heineken European Cup campaign. In the northern hemisphere Califano and Tournaire are seen as top-class props but last Saturday they were bested by their South African counterparts. What Os du Randt, James Dalton and Adrian Garvey will do to the England scrummage does not bear thinking about. Expect a repeat of the problems we had in the set-piece against Australia. At the line-out their ball-winning looks sound and their driving-play is impressive - witness Dalton's try last weekend.

The back five looks reasonable with Mark Andrews regaining some of his old form and Gary Teichmann leading from the front, but the loss of Joost van der Westhuizen will weaken their defensive systems and make them slightly more predictable.

In the midfield the main running threat is Henry Honiball - he is big, quick and very direct; a larger version of Mike Catt who tackles like a thunderclap. Outside him, Dick Muir is solid and dependable but lacks pace, while Andre Snyman has pace to burn but defensively can look somewhat awry having spent a good deal of his career on the wing.

The back three like to run with the ball in hand and the selection of Percy Montgomery at full-back is interesting. He is a good footballer with quick feet and hands but his experience at full-back is very limited. Gavin Johnson, the former Springbok No 15, said: "He's a great attacking player who creates space and accelerates through gaps anywhere on the field." However, if the weather stays wet and the ground gets heavy then he might find it difficult to adjust if England's kicking game is sufficiently accurate to move him about.

While on the matter of kicking it is staggering that the Springboks still take the field without a recognised goal- kicker of international standard. It cost them the series against the Lions and yet still they persist. Honiball has many talents but consistent goal-kicking is not among them - when the pressure is on you cannot depend on him. One week he will be fine but then the next...

The ex-Springbok captain Francois Pienaar is in no doubt as to the importance of this European tour to his country's team. "They will be looking to develop a coherent game plan and fit in with Nick Mallett's coaching style," he said. "A good tour will increase confidence and enable a settled side to be established before the challenge of the Tri-Nations next season."

Though they are not in the same class as the All Blacks (who are?), the South Africans bring a brooding intensity to every game they play. Their defence is normally excellent and they will be well organised.

What they do not have is a great deal of variety - if England can match the big hitting which distinguished the Lions then they will pose them some problems. It will be a very physical challenge and if things do not go well for the front five then it might be another long afternoon for the men in white.

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