Political interference and low morale expose Springboks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has been a rough week for the Springboks - not, of course, as rough as the calamitous weeks they suffered during their preparations for last year's World Cup, when they were stripped bare both literally and figuratively during a hellish tour of duty in a pre-tournament boot camp situated in some far-flung corner of the high veld, but depressing all the same. Beaten on the field in Dublin and seriously compromised in the political chamber back home, the South Africans can be forgiven for wondering whether this visit to the British Isles is on the brink of implosion.

It has been a rough week for the Springboks - not, of course, as rough as the calamitous weeks they suffered during their preparations for last year's World Cup, when they were stripped bare both literally and figuratively during a hellish tour of duty in a pre-tournament boot camp situated in some far-flung corner of the high veld, but depressing all the same. Beaten on the field in Dublin and seriously compromised in the political chamber back home, the South Africans can be forgiven for wondering whether this visit to the British Isles is on the brink of implosion.

The trip has certainly fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns on the enjoyment front. Few rugby men, least of all the champions of the southern hemisphere, would appreciate being robbed blind by a referee in a tight game, as the Boks were by the New Zealand official Paul Honiss at Lansdowne Road, and it is fair to suggest they take even less pleasure in having their team selection disrupted from afar by government types who may or may not know a scissors move from a stick of biltong.

As a result of these incidents - Honiss' decision to award the Irish a try while the Bokke captain, John Smit, was obeying the referee's own instruction to warn his players about repeated infringements; the pressure heaped on the tourists' coaching staff to reinstate the black wing Breyton Paulse ahead of their preferred choice for today's game at Twickenham, the white wing Jaque Fourie - South African spirits are lower than they were in the run-up to the Dublin game. And that must be grist to the English mill.

Retirements, long-term injuries, loss of form... this unholy trinity has undermined the red rose army for the last nine months, and when the remnants of the World Cup-winning side caught three fearful whoppings in the Antipodes in June, precious few observers were willing to put a brass farthing on a significant England victory during the autumn Test series. Australia had put 50 points in England in Brisbane; the Boks had established themselves as the pick of the Sanzar community. The assumption was that come November, both would leave Twickenham in credit.

Attention will shift to the Wallabies next week, but the current business with the South Africans may turn out to be more lucrative for England than was imagined even a fortnight ago. Canada, no more than sacrificial mooses at Twickenham last week, did not offer any sort of yardstick against which this latest combination could be measured, but 70 points without reply is still a decent return. Jason Robinson may have been in a fearful strop over newspaper intrusion, but there were few signs of distraction in his three-try performance; Mark Cueto looked the part on the right wing on his Test debut; Charlie Hodgson and Henry Paul showed more midfield trickery in the hour they spent together than the red rose army generated in the whole of the World Cup campaign.

South Africa have been together since the start of the summer, England barely at all. Yet if anyone has the force with them today, it is the home side. Why? Because the Springboks now find themselves on a Grand Slam tour that is already dead. Their defeat in Dublin, deserved or otherwise, means they cannot emulate the feat of Avril Malan's 1961 vintage, who visited all four capital cities in the British Isles and left each with a victory to their name. England, on the other hand, are starting afresh, under a new coach and a new captain. They are not battle-weary, still less intimidated by the prospect of this fixture. Rather, they are agog with excitement. "It's like Christmas," said Joe Lydon, the specialist attack coach, yesterday. "I can't wait for it to arrive."

None of this points to a comprehensive English win; it may well be that they will not win at all. On the face of it, few of the home side could be confident of forcing a place in the Springbok line-up. Robinson would certainly feature, provided he was willing to shift from full-back to wing; Hodgson might or might not sneak in ahead of the equally imaginative Jaco van der Westhuyzen; Julian White would definitely make the cut at tight-head prop; one, perhaps two, of the back five would stand a chance of selection. But in a straight pick on the balance of the available evidence, an Anglo-Bok team would be at least two-thirds full of South Africans.

Rugby does not work like that, though. As more than one of England's front-line coaches said yesterday, the Springboks are a "momentum team" - and right now, their momentum is not what it was. They have brilliant game-breaking individuals in Percy Montgomery, Marius Joubert, Joe van Niekerk and the extraordinary Schalk Burger, and the men who cement the bricks together, the Victor Matfields and De Wet Barrys, are nobody's fools. Yet they are making more mistakes, and losing more of their cool, than a side of their calibre should.

If England get through this, the road ahead will be straight and clear. The Boks thought they were on the freeway to unlimited success until they were shunted on to the hard shoulder by Ireland. Eighty minutes is a long time in this game.

Comments