Barely 10 months after its World Cup triumph, South African rugby is back at the crossroads peering with concern at disaster.
The glitter surrounding the Springboks’ success in Paris last October has been dulled by three defeats in four Tri-Nations Test matches this year. New coach Peter de Villiers is under intensive scrutiny as the ‘Boks new game plan under his tutelage has failed to deliver. Furthermore, the South Africans have been criticised by the IRB for their coach’s carping at referees and their captain’s on-field questioning of their decisions.
Rumours, those perennial elements that are seldom far from the surface in Springbok rugby, abound that all is far from well in the camp. It is suggested that the senior players are influencing selection and increasingly demanding an input into tactics.
New Zealand’s 19-0 win in Cape Town last weekend (the first time ever that South Africa failed to score a point at home against them in Test rugby) has increased the volume of the sirens being sounded. Without injured captain John Smit, South Africa has often looked rudderless. The whole has not matched the sum of the parts.
And so to Durban where gentle breezes waft in off the Indian Ocean and temperatures in the mid-70s suggest summer not winter. But there will be nothing gentle about this Test match. The Springboks, although now highly unlikely to add the Tri-Nations title to their (albeit tarnished) World Cup crown are increasingly desperate for a break from the relentless criticism. They know this is delivery time.
“We need to stand and deliver” said centre Jean de Villiers this week. “If we don’t, then some guys including myself should be replaced. It is about performing in pressure situations and that is what we have to do.”
The Springboks’ chief difficulties have been at the breakdown. Wallaby flanker George Smith destroyed them in Perth and New Zealand captain Richie McCaw did the same in Cape Town last week. That’s partly because South Africa lacks a genuine open-side flanker, or fetcher as they are known in this hemisphere. The Springboks’ lack of accuracy and precision at the breakdown has been a serious cause for concern.
Surprisingly, De Villiers elected to make only one un-enforced change from last week’s defeat, recalling Conrad Jantjes at full-back in place of Percy Montgomery. Jantjes will add pace but South Africa will miss the lightning fast Bryan Habana on the wing due to a hamstring injury. Jongi Nokwe, admittedly no slouch, takes his place and can expect some examination going backwards under the high ball.
South Africa did scrummage extremely well against New Zealand last week and will look to exploit Australia’s vulnerability in this phase. They must also strike the necessary balance between their coach’s desire for a faster, more fluid approach against their own tendencies to play a more structured game. But an area of concern might be that this is their third game in successive weeks. So far, no side has looked capable of dealing with that pressure of physicality and expectation this year.
Australia has had three weeks to digest their heavy 39-10 defeat in Auckland. They are without Luke Burgess and Adam Ashley-Cooper but believe the break has been beneficial. Preparing in Cape Town, not Durban, this week, coach Robbie Deans has professed himself satisfied with the build-up.
The weight of expectation on the Springboks is enormous. Defeat could cause serious ramifications, not just for the coach but many players. That fear factor may inspire a fighting, backs-to-the-wall performance that is good enough to see off the Australians, particularly as the latter have not won any of their last 15 Test matches away from home, and are without a victory in South Africa since 2000.
Yet betting against teams coached by Robbie Deans is a dangerous game. The wily New Zealander has adapted better than anyone in world coaching to the nuances of the new laws currently being trialled.
Picking winners this time is about as difficult as forecasting world oil prices for next month. But perhaps home advantage and a threatening fear of failure may just get the Springboks home.
SOUTH AFRICA: C. Jantjes; JP Pietersen, A. Jacobs, J. de Villiers, J. Nokwe; B. James, F. du Preez; B. Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, CJ van der Linde, A. Bekker, V. Matfield, S. Burger, J. Smith, P. Spies.
AUSTRALIA: D. Mitchell; P. Hynes, S. Mortlock, B. Barnes, L. Tuqiri; M. Giteau, S. Cordingley; B. Robinson, S. Moore, M. Dunning, J. Horwill, D. Vickerman, R. Elsom, G. Smith, W. Palu.
REFEREE: L. Bray (New Zealand)