Peter Bills: The Springboks are in trouble

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I think it doubtful that South African coach Peter de Villiers is a devotee of 'Dad's Army', the old TV sit-com show. No matter, de Villiers might soon need to cling onto one of that famous show's most renowned catchphrases.

'Don't panic' might well be the gist of de Villiers' plea to his bosses at the South African Rugby Union. Eight defeats in ten months including the tour of the northern hemisphere last November suggest a long term malady at the heart of Springbok rugby.

And if you doubted the extent of the anger and frustration within South Africa following last Saturday's fourth consecutive Tri-Nations defeat of 2010, the third in a row by New Zealand, then you only had to pour over the many words written on the internet in a stream of concerned comments these past 48 hours.

Many called for the removal of coach de Villiers and his assistants.

Whilst it is undeniable that the South Africans under this coaching unit have failed utterly to adapt to the new game hastened by a fresh interpretation of the laws, it should be said in fairness that the South Africans have been seriously weakened by injury and unavailability. Fourie du Preez, Heinrich Brussouw, Juan Smith (until last Saturday), Jaque Fourie, Frans Steyn, Bakkies Botha and certain others would undoubtedly stiffen a South African 1st XV.

But every team loses players for a variety of reasons. Each has to get on with it as best as possible. The fact is, the Springboks haven't coped at all well over the best part of a year. This 2010 Tri-Nations campaign has been disastrous, it is true, yet the seeds were sown long ago, back in October 2009 when their coach insisted all his best and senior players had to make the long tour of the northern hemisphere.

What happened is well known. The weary Springboks lost Tests to France and Ireland, plus non-Test midweek games to English clubs Leicester and Saracens. Their only win was a scrambled affair over Italy.

Yet even then, the warning signs that older players like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and some others were starting to look tired, were ignored by the Springboks' management. They were overlooked again when Peter de Villiers insisted the veterans Smit, Matfield and Rossouw flew to Cardiff in June to participate in a meaningless match against Wales that was only ever staged to raise money.

In the case of Matfield and Rossouw, they travelled and played that Test just days after their team's Super 14 final triumph.

The view at the time, expressed in these columns as long ago as last year after the Lions tour to South Africa, that these senior players would need lengthy breaks, was ignored completely.

But that poor management of players has come home to roost with at least one former leading coach, Australia's 1991 World Cup winner Bob Dwyer saying this week "It is time for John Smit to go. He's got his ton (of caps); he has to retire because he is so far off the pace now."

But the Springboks have a problem. Without Smit, they have often looked rudderless. And having invested so much hope in him, can de Villiers now dump his captain and, by inference, admit he got it wrong? I very much doubt it.

Other, equally pressing questions arise over this malfunctioning Springbok side. Why did Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, two of South African rugby's most talented younger players, clear off to Europe to play with a World Cup on the horizon? Because, it is alleged, neither gets on with the national coach.

Then there have been the selection blunders. In the long term absence of du Preez, the world's No. 1 scrum half, de Villiers kept picking Ricky Januarie on the 'Boks Tri-Nations tour this year. Yet now he admits Januarie is not fit enough for this level and besides, last Saturday's new cap Francois Hougaard looked a far superior player to Januarie. Why wasn't he brought in before?

Flip van der Merwe wasn't even chosen for the original squad for the Tri-Nations tour to New Zealand and Australia last month. Yet he then started last Saturday's Johannesburg Test against the All Blacks and acquitted himself well.

All over the Springboks side, the blunders in selection have been obvious. According to the coach, there was no problem playing Jean de Villiers on the wing – yet he'd hardly played there in his entire career and when he tried it in the Tri-Nations, looked hopeless. His move back to inside centre last Saturday was, predictably, a vast improvement, even though his turnover in the final move cost South Africa a try and the match.

Meanwhile, Bryan Habana has gone from arguably the most dangerous wing in world rugby to a player who looks defensively vulnerable and completely lost. That takes some doing.

One of the South Africans' main problems is how to adapt to the new laws. They seem caught between their old, traditional kicking-based approach and a need to keep the ball in hand much more. Right now, there seems no clear directive from above on this aspect – the players don't appear to know the preferred option.

Yet it would be absurd to suggest that, in players like Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Juan de Jongh, Francois Hougaard and others behind the scrum, not to mention fast, strong loose forwards like Pierre Spies, Francois Louw, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Dewald Potgieter, they don't have the players to play that type of game.

Alas, one key question is whether Morne Steyn, always more comfortable kicking than running the ball at international level, the right man to launch that back line of talents?

But then, come to think of it, a great many South African supporters are now asking, 'Is Peter de Villiers the right man to direct this whole team'?