Rugby Union: Springboks in hunting mood

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The Independent Online
LORD, IT is hard to be humble when you have just won 14 Tests on the bounce, more than half of them against rugby nations who really punch their weight. The Springboks ran through every public relations trick in the book in an effort to conceal at least some of their confidence as they arrived in London yesterday at the start of a first Grand Slam attempt in almost 30 years. But, try as they might, there was no disguising the unfathomable depth of their self-assurance.

A clean sweep of the British Isles - the serious business, if indeed it can be so described, starts against Wales at Wembley a week today and ends at Twickenham on 5 December - will see the South Africans anointed as the most successful Test side in 127 years of international competition. Brian Lochore's All Blacks won 17 consecutive matches between 1965 and 1969. That will be equalled should Gary Teichmann's side reassert their obvious superiority over the many and various Celts, and passed if they then do a job on England, who pose the greatest threat to this particular masterplan.

Worryingly for the home contingent, the tourists fully expect to realise their ambition. "I'd be lying if I said we weren't thinking about the record," said the scrupulously truthful Teichmann, whose captaincy has gone from the ridiculous - a scarcely credible series defeat by the Lions - to the sublime in the space of 16 months. "But we should remember where we have just come from. A year ago we were right down at the bottom, and if we allow ourselves to be distracted by statistics we could slide back pretty quickly."

Unlike the Australians, who arrive later this month from France, the Boks are virtually intact; only Pieter Muller, the rib-crushing centre from Natal, and Os du Randt, the body-crushing prop from the Free State, are conspicuous by their absence. The main men play 11 months of the year and their coach, Nick Mallett, is seriously concerned at the sheer scale of the international treadmill.

But there was never the remotest possibility of his doing a Clive Woodward and leaving his prize assets at home. "The players want to be Springboks, they want to play for their country," he said yesterday. "There is tremendous enthusiasm for this tour, even though we are being shunted around from pillar to post at the end of a very hard cycle of activity."

Mallett suspects that this will be his country's last crack at a Slam for the foreseeable future and wants the job done. South Africa used to make a habit of rubbing British and Irish noses in the dirt of their own backyards -- four Springbok parties achieved the Slam between 1912 and 1961, and Basil Kenyon's 1951-52 outfit probably remain the greatest side ever to visit these islands - and given the contempt in which northern hemisphere rugby is held by the southern superpowers at the moment, there will be a palpable sense of disbelief, not to say an inquiry worthy of Kenneth Starr, if this trip unexpectedly goes belly-up.

No one in London, let alone Edinburgh or Dublin, will gamble their week's wages on that eventuality; any side strong enough to confine a loose forward of Bobby Skinstad's talent to the replacements' bench possesses all the necessary weaponry to pillage their way through this rugby neighbourhood like a boatload of Vikings. Skinstad, at 22 the most discussed player in South Africa, will captain the midweek side against Glasgow Caledonians on Tuesday, so he is unlikely to make the starting line-up for the Welsh Test four days later.

What happens after that is anyone's guess. Skinstad has been on fire for Western Province of late and in the process convinced many South Africans that his time has now arrived. "Mallett makes a virtue of his loyalty to players and, while that is very laudable, he must beware it becoming his weakness," said one Springbok watcher yesterday. "Skinstad is probably the most gifted footballer we've produced in a generation and he's a hot bet to take over the reins when Teichmann goes. It's just a matter of the coach giving him his head."

For rather different reasons, it will be fascinating to see how Mallett handles Owen Nkumane, the Sowetan hooker who has broken through the last barrier of the so-called "white man's game" by becoming the first black African Springbok. "I don't want to concern myself with that issue," he insisted on his arrival in London. "I just want to fit in as a tourist and as a player. It would mean an enormous amount to my family and friends if I made the Test side one day, but that is for the future. Right now I'm happy to be here with the chance to improve my game."


Tue 10 November 7pm v Glasgow Caledonians Firhill Stadium

Sat 14 November 3pm v Wales Wembley Stadium

Tue 17 November 7pm v Edinburgh Reivers Easter Road

Sat 21 November 3pm v Scotland Murrayfield

Tue 24 November 7pm v Combined Provinces Musgrave Park, Cork

Sat 28 November 3pm v Ireland Landsdowne Road

Tue 1 December 7pm v Ireland A Ravenhill, Belfast

Sat 5 December 2pm v England Twickenham