Straeuli rides out storm and plans to surprise Woodward
Tuesday 19 November 2002
Rudolf Straeuli and his Springboks, lambasted from Pretoria to Port Elizabeth via Pietermaritzburg and Paarl following record defeats in France and Scotland, have reached for the self-help videos in an effort to piece together a few fragments of confidence before this weekend's visit to Twickenham. Some of the relevant titles – "How Not To Be The Worst South African Team In History" and "How To Scrummage With Props Who Cannot Punch Their Way Out Of A Wet Paper Bag" – are not yet on the market, so they are making do with some old England footage.
"England are one of the top teams, and the best in the world when they are playing in London," conceded Straeuli, the former World Cup-winning No 8 who succeeded Harry Viljoen as national coach in April. "But they are vulnerable in certain areas. If they were not vulnerable, they would not have lost in Paris earlier this year, or in Dublin last October, or at Murrayfield in 2000. Clive Woodward has achieved a good deal with this team, but these things must be kept in perspective."
He was not at all eager to discuss England – or any other subject, as a matter of fact – and left yesterday's gathering in Kensington with the expression of a man preparing to look inwards, ask some hard questions of himself and his team, and come out fighting. Springbok pride, which runs unfathomably deeper than most other varieties, has been more than wounded over the 10 days: it has been insulted. Straeuli may not expect to end England's 17-match home winning streak on Saturday, but he certainly plans to make them sit up and take notice.
Not that he has much room for manoeuvre on the selection front. Some of his most potent forces – Bobby Skinstad, Rassie Erasmus, Victor Matfield and the reinvigorated Os du Randt – are back home in the Republic, while others – Andre Vos, Andre Venter, Mark Andrews and Robbie Kempson – have voluntarily entered the post-international phase of their careers. Of the current tourists, the powerful prop from Johannesburg, Lawrence Sephaka, is out of the running through injury, and there are continuing doubts surrounding the fitness of the brilliant Western Province centre, Marius Joubert.
"Every Test match is important: the South African public expects victory in each game, as do the Springbok players and management," said the coach. "But it is important to look at the bigger picture. We are a year from the World Cup in Australia, and we must play our most important game against England – more important than this one – in the pool phase of that tournament. Will England be playing as they are now in 12 months' time, away from home? Can they improve? I know what we have back home in terms of ability, the store we have in the bank. I can tell you that I have been much lower in my life than I am at this moment."
Straeuli is unlikely to name his side before tomorrow, not least because he is awaiting a dependable weather forecast for the weekend. Many of his sharpest operators – Brent Russell, Werner Greef, Bolla Conradie, Andre Pretorius – first caught the eye in Tri-Nations rugby last summer, but it is devilishly difficult to play that style of adventurous, fast-handling rugby in heavy European conditions. The All Blacks managed it at Twickenham a week last Saturday, but their back line was awash with experience.
Woodward will name his side today. With Trevor Woodman, the Gloucester prop, struggling with the neck problems that forced him out of the Australia fixture, Jason Leonard, the 34-year-old Harlequin, has every chance of making a 99th England appearance. If he plays, his personal collection of caps will be comfortably greater than that belonging to the entire Springbok pack, which tells you something about the tourists' know-how, or lack of it.
"At Murrayfield on Saturday, Joe van Niekerk was our fifth most experienced player – and he is 21," said Straeuli. "But how do young players get the necessary experience without being given the opportunity to play?" If the Bokke coach can square that circle by the weekend, he will be worth his considerable weight in Krugerrands.
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