Rugby Union: Springboks fight for credibility

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The Independent Online
ALL THE hubris having been knocked out of them by the All Blacks and Wallabies, the Springboks go into today's first Test against France at the Stade Gerland affected by a becoming but uncharacteristic modesty.

It is not that they have much to be modest about after South African rugby's years of isolation; just that defeat by New Zealand and Australia followed by the harsh reality of touring in France has taught them that you do not become a player of international standard until you have played international rugby.

Thus, although the tour matches have been a progression from awful in the first match in Bordeaux to fairly awesome in the fourth in Marseilles, the truth about these Springboks will not be revealed until this afternoon. However highly they may regard their domestic Currie Cup, its inherent incestuousness has proved extremely damaging now that they have re-entered the rugby world.

'Up to now, our players told themselves 'I play in a provincial side, therefore I'm good',' John Williams, South Africa's coach, said. 'They failed to be aware that that was not enough to be a good international player and play for the Springboks.'

Put another way, most of these Springboks have experience only of playing with and against each other. The Currie Cup contains no more than five significant teams and the last decade has in the main consisted of an endless round of matches against the same opponents.

This is why today's French side, relatively inexperienced though they are, are infinitely more worldly-wise than the Springboks - and so have to be favoured to win. They have been around, most recently in Argentina; the South Africans have not. 'We are playing 13 games here and in England; that's around 200 opponents most of whom are used to taking on unfamiliar opposition,' Williams said.

'Other countries go on tour all the time. They know what is involved at international level. But our players are totally Currie Cup- orientated, used to playing the same opposition year-in year-out. So each game our players play on this tour is far more of a learning experience for them than it is for their opponents.'

The learning curve has been steadily upwards. Defeat in Bordeaux was followed by narrow wins in Pau and Toulouse and emphatic victory in Marseilles. Two tries were conceded in the first match, one in the second, none in either the third or fourth. Why, they might even be building to a peak in perfect time for the Test.

This is how the All Blacks did it in France in 1990, when two provincial defeats preceded two comfortable Test victories. France themselves experienced something similar in Argentina four months ago, losing up country but then twice beating the Pumas without great difficulty. If the Springboks can win enough ball, especially loose ball, they have it in them to do the same (and so preserve South Africa's unbeaten Test record in France).

But this is precisely the problem. The immobility of Springbok forward play tends to leave them cruelly exposed against as fast a man as the French flanker Laurent Cabannes. And their unfamiliarity with the real laws of the game (as opposed to those that have been applied in South Africa) tends to land them in trouble with referees.

Today's is Brian Kinsey of Australia - not, as England would testify, one of the most sympathetic - and he is hoping for something less distasteful than he witnessed as a spectator in Marseilles. The Springboks won that all-in fight and may, in the process, have altered the course of the tour.

'I hate violence of any kind but the fight was a turning point,' Naas Botha, a captain under pressure for his Test place, said. 'Now the French know that South Africa cannot be intimidated. It's not good for rugby but it may have been necessary. Strangely enough, South Africa emerged from that as far more of a team.'

As you would expect, each side has blamed the other - which only goes to show that one man's gratuitous violence is another's necessary evil. 'I am for clean rugby, rid of all brutality,' Pierre Berbizier, the coach of France, said.

'But it is sometimes difficult to get the message through to the players when they find out that others are permitted to do what they are reproached for,' Berbizier added. This may or may not be an articulation of the old French persecution complex but it is the story of French rugby.

Botha's legacy, page 44

(at Stade Gerland, Lyons) J-L Sadourny Colomiers 15 H Reece-Edwards Natal P Saint-Andre Montferrand 14 J Small Transvaal C Deylaud Toulouse 13 P Muller Natal F Mesnel Racing Club 12 D Gerber Western Province S Viars Brive 11 J Olivier Northern Transvaal A Penaud Brive 10 N Botha N. Transvaal, capt A Hueber Toulon 9 G Wright Transvaal L Armary Lourdes 1 J Styger Orange Free State J-M Gonzales Bayonne 2 W Hills Northern Transvaal P Gallart Beziers 3 H Rodgers Transvaal J-M Cadieu Toulouse 4 A Geldenhuys Eastern Province O Roumat Dax 5 A Malan Northern Transvaal J-F Tordo Nice 6 W Bartmann Natal M Cecillon Bourgoin, capt 8 T Strauss Western Province L Cabannes Racing Club 7 A Richter Northern Transvaal

Replacements: 16 J-B Lafond (Begles), 17 T Lacroix (Dax), 18 F Galthie (Colomiers), 18 P Benetton (Agen), 19 A Benazzi (Agen), 21 S Graou (Auch).

Replacements: 16 T van Rensburg (Northern Transvaal), 17 H le Roux (Transvaal), 18 R du Preez (Natal), 19 B Rossouw (Western Transvaal), 20 D Hattingh (Northern Transvaal), 21 H Roberts (Transvaal).

Referee: B Kinsey (Australia).

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