Springboks have lost their swagger

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The Independent Online

England v South Africa at Twickenham: it ought to be pocket calculator time. The World Champions are in London and they confront an England side still at the embryonic stage. Australia reminded us of that last weekend, moving smoothly to a 28-14 victory that avenged England’s World Cup win over them just over 12 months ago.

This England is a very different side; promising perhaps and clearly with some potential but still in its infancy. So too should be the South African team that confronts them this weekend. As World Champions, the Springboks should be on a roll, building on their triumph at France 2007 and demonstrating a swagger the preserve of which is fitting for champions.

Yet astonishingly, from the words emanating from both camps this week, you would suspect a contest of roughly equal proportions. England believe they can learn from their errors against the Wallabies and make a real fist of it. South Africa believe – well, therein lies the problem. Who knows what the South Africans really believe?

Publicly, some leading Springboks have assured their supporters (and perhaps themselves) that they will be up for this one. Which begs the question, were they not up for the previous two tour games against Wales and Scotland? If not, why not? Both produced squeaky bottom displays as the ‘Boks scrambled home by the edge of their pants. World Champions? They looked to be about where England are at present, a side just starting out. Little cohesion, belief in short supply, technical indiscretions, obvious failings and weaknesses……….

By anyone’s standards, this is an extraordinary state of affairs. World Champions should offer an arrogance in their game, an intimidating presence that has inexperienced members of the opposition cowing in their path. Given the paucity of world class teams in this part of the world at present, they ought to be sweeping all before them on this tour. It should be a victory celebration, a reminder to the world that South African rugby stands proudly at the top of the world pile.

Yet what have we seen? A side apparently shorn of any self belief, a team of champs performing like chumps. To tumble from the best team in the world little more than 12 months ago to bottom of the Tri-Nations (perhaps it was as well Argentina were not competing in the southern hemisphere’s premier tournament) and a side that came within moments (and a few metres) of defeat to lowly Scotland, represents a Nixon-esque fall from grace.

This England side ought not to be able to hold a candle to these experienced, powerful and proven quality Springboks. It ought to be a simple question of ‘by how many’, not who’. But such has been the disarray of the South Africans on this tour that it seems we must share the common perception that forecasting is a risky business.

With the best will in the world, you have to say that the decline of world class players, many of whom represent the envy of every other rugby playing nation on the planet, to ordinary operators, is alarming for those charged with guiding South Africa’s rugby fortunes. Why has it happened, is everyone or just certain individuals to blame?

There are obvious targets for culpability but for the moment, their collars should remain un-felt. I cannot believe that anything other than a comprehensive victory for the world champions is feasible against Martin Johnson’s team in creation. England lack world quality in some key positions and not even youthful promise can mask that reality.

But if we are to demand the highest standards of excellence from these Springboks – and why shouldn’t we ? - nothing less than a compelling victory (and performance) will suffice in London on Saturday.

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