Rugby Union: The spring-loaded tourists: Chris Rea feels that the South Africans will bring a spirit of adventure

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The Independent Online
THE unadorned statistics provide a grim reminder of their recent past for the South Africans, who arrive on Wednesday for a 13-match tour of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Since their return from sporting isolation two years ago, they have played 19 internationals of which they have lost 10, drawn two and won only seven. Four of those victories have come against Argentina, hardly in the front rank of the world's rugby nations. Even more perplexing has been the number of players called up to represent the Springboks during that spell: 77 in total, of whom 56 have received Test caps, an inordinately high turnover rate, and a sure sign of selectorial confusion and strategic uncertainty.

Given those statistics, it is hardly surprising that the South Africans have so far failed to find the consistency required to come up alongside the world's leaders, although from their scattered successes over Australia, France and England, we may be certain that it is only a matter of time before they do. Those who followed their wayward and at times wanton progress in New Zealand last summer know how infuriatingly close they came to the rare attainment of a Test series victory against the All Blacks, thwarted as much by their own tactical ineptitude as by opponents who may have lost some of their old craft but none of their craftiness.

Since then, the Springboks have disposed of their coach and yet more of their excess baggage on the playing side. The result is a carefully considered selection, a well-balanced party capable of adapting to changing conditions and unfamiliar playing patterns. The party reflects the coaching philosophy of its new coach, Kitch Christie, having a strong element of pragmatism streaked with romance. As he has been fighting an almost continuous battle against cancer for many years, we may also expect a certain cussedness laced with supreme optimism. His days in hospital receiving treatment have not been wasted, and it is doubtful if any coach is more fully briefed about the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents than Christie.

He also has a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, which is just as well because the Springboks' record in this respect has at times been shameful. The selection of Elandre van den Berg, the perpetrator of the atrocity on Jon Callard at Port Elizabeth last summer, has provoked both outrage and astonishment. Outrage in Britain, astonishment in South Africa, where it is considered that there are any number of candidates better qualified, among them the Transvaal flanker Charles Rossoux. But this would have raised the representation from Transvaal, Christie's own province, to 14: tactically correct but politically insensitive.

The deciding factor in van den Berg's selection was the additional height he will give the South Africans at the line-out. In Mark Andrews they have a lock of genuine class, but he does not stretch to the freakish lengths of some in the world game. Neither does his likely partner in the second row, Drikkus Hattingh, he of the spring heels and tightly coiled temper, and it may be that they will have to rely on the often potent concoction of subtlety, surprise and subterfuge for their line-out possession. In that latter art at least Wales will have a head start if their midweek game against Italy is any sort of guide. The tallest in the party is the 6ft 7in Philip Schutte, whose game has been transformed since he came under Christie's influence at Transvaal.

The Springboks encountered serious difficulties in the line-out against the Pumas last week when there appeared to be a breakdown in communications between Uli Schmidt and his jumpers. Andrews, who had established a rapport with John Allan in the Natal side and on the New Zealand tour, clearly disliked Schmidt's throwing-in. By selecting Schmidt and James Dalton, the Springboks have ignored the rising fashion for playing big hookers in the mould of Phil Kearns of Australia.

But the South Africans are unlikely to be inconvenienced on this tour by the physical superiority of their opposition. Neither Scotland nor Wales is over-endowed with gargantuan forwards.

Before deciding on his props, Christie toured the country seeking the views of fellow members of the front-row union, and the one name which cropped up time and again was that of Tommy Laubscher, the Western Province tight-head whose selection disproves the adage 'out of sight out of mind'.

Laubscher has been around and in full view for years, but at the age of 31 had abandoned hope of winning international recognition. Then, having not played for two months, he was propelled into the Test side to play Argentina and has been selected for this tour with every chance of playing in the World Cup.

The Springboks' tactical limitations were so fully exposed in New Zealand that there had to be a thorough rethink at half-back. Hennie le Roux, as he proved against England, is a majestic runner given the opportunity, but the opportunities for runners at this level are few and, in between, the international fly-half must be able to kick: hence the inclusion of Joel Stransky. With two top-of-the-ground scrum- halves in Joost van der Westhuizen and Kevin Putt, and a centre pairing as naturally complementary as Pieter Muller and Brendan Venter, the tourists' taste for adventure should be satisfied.

The Springboks have the ability to be the most entertaining side to visit these shores since the 1984 Wallabies. Whether they get the chance may depend not so much on the opposition but on the tourists' attitude to the referees and how readily they apply themselves to interpretations which are certain to be closer to the textbook than the South Africans are accustomed to at home. For them such adherence to the rules is not just a fact of touring life but a fact of rugby life, and unless they accept the fact, they can expect no leniency. Nor will they have any chance of winning the World Cup on their home territory in six months' time.

TOUR ITINERARY: 22 October Cardiff; 26 October Wales A (Newport); 29 October Llanelli; 2 November Neath; 5 November Swansea; 9 November Scotland A (Melrose); 12 November Scottish Combined Districts (Glasgow); 15 November Scottish Selection (Aberdeen); 19 November Scotland (Edinburgh); 22 November Pontypridd; 26 November Wales (Cardiff); 29 November Combined Irish Provinces (Belfast); 3 December Barbarians (Dublin).

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