Peter Bills: Springboks in crisis as Tri Nations looms

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The Independent Online

A muddling performance of mediocrity by the Springboks in Johannesburg completed a Lions tour in which the world champions have spluttered only occasionally into life.

Is this what we are now to expect from the 2007 World Champions? Most alarming of all, the disinterest in this tour among most provincial crowds was matched on Saturday by most of the Springbok players. They looked distracted, disillusioned and quite unable to turn the red tide that rolled all over them.

It is right and proper to acknowledge a performance rich in character and sheer will to emerge by the Lions. Their determination to avoid the ignominy of a first whitewash of 118 years in South Africa was obvious and commendable. They showed great grit and wonderful courage and commitment. They thoroughly deserved their comprehensive victory.

Yet these are the facts. The Lions started this tour with only one player who would walk into a World XV, Brian O’Driscoll. The Springboks had eight. The Lions finished it not only without the brilliant Irishman but his fellow centre Jamie Roberts, the player who has made by far the most progress on this tour.

Not only that but the Lions had to play this last Test without their two first choice props, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones.

A squad as limited as this Lions one simply should not be able to survive such significant absentees. Yet far from being put to the sword, it was the Lions who smashed their opponents aside. Collectively, having studied the two teams on Saturday at Coca Cola Park, a stranger, asked to choose the world champions from the two sides, would have said without hesitation ‘The Lions’.

It is surely pertinent to ask how this state of affairs has come about in South African rugby. This, remember, is a golden generation of Springbok rugby, a unique possibly once-in-a-lifetime era where class players seem available for every position. Better still, there is a hard core of deeply experienced players who have not only won in excess of 50 caps but have the added value of having won a World Cup.

The 2009 Lions, almost complete strangers to one another when they met up on May 24, should have been wiped away by these Springboks. Yet the Lions very nearly won the series.

Only some desperate defence in the final minutes in Durban when they just managed to hang on against the Lions’ roaring rally and Ronan O’Gara’s disastrous late intervention in Pretoria when he conceded 10 points inside the final minutes, enabled the Springboks to scrape home.

If there were hairy moments for the South Africans in both games, Saturday was worse, far worse. Without structure, shape, pattern, interest, belief or much discipline at times, the Springboks looked a disparate group just going through the motions. They seemed quite unable or unwilling to step up to the level demanded for any Test match.

Their appeasers will point to the ten changes made from Pretoria. Fine, but are we now being told that players like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Jaque Fourie, ‘Beast’ Mtawarira and Heinrich Brussow (who should be exempted from criticism) are poor players? Are they not good enough for this level? Please, be sensible.

That group represents over half the team. Others are hardly bad players.

It is my belief that the reasons for so desperately poor an offering by South Africa, a display which had no desire or real will to emerge never mind the game plan and shape to achieve it, have to be found elsewhere.

When your coach makes the media headlines all week in the build-up to any Test, generally a side is in trouble. Right now, as the Tri-Nations is about to start, these Springboks look in trouble. Players of undoubted talent who ought to be kicking on and making obvious progress seem to be going backwards. Others of undeniable pedigree and quality are not performing? Why?

If it is the belief of the Springbok management that they can just switch performances on and off, like a light switch, that all will be well when it really matters, then they are deluding themselves. Every Test match matters, every one should be a must win for professional players.

Last Saturday at Coca Cola Park, long before the finish, the field lay strewn with clues as to the general state of the Springbok squad. While the Lions rightly celebrated, it cannot have made for pretty viewing through South African eyes.