White takes Boks gingerly into new era

There's a new coach, a new-look team, but the same old controversies. Gary Lemke reports
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The Independent Online

The more you watch the 21st-century Springboks the more you are left with the impression that either they are on the brink of self-destruction or they are ready to shake up the world order again. It's a fine line they tread. Take last week, for example. In new coach Jake White's first match in charge, a shadow Test team came up against a scratch provincial XV and won 62-19. No cause for alarm there.

The more you watch the 21st-century Springboks the more you are left with the impression that either they are on the brink of self-destruction or they are ready to shake up the world order again. It's a fine line they tread. Take last week, for example. In new coach Jake White's first match in charge, a shadow Test team came up against a scratch provincial XV and won 62-19. No cause for alarm there.

Good cheer, however, was mixed with despair. Last season's South African player of the year, the wing Ashwin Willemse, suffered a serious ankle injury and is out of the forthcoming series against Ireland and Wales. The game, a trial for next Saturday's opener against the Irish in Bloemfontein, was littered with handling errors - but also featured some bone-jarring tackling.

Four players were yellow-carded, which suggests that White has inherited the problem of Bok indiscipline (new tighthead prop Eddie Andrews was sin-binned within two minutes for punching). Other question marks remain at fly-half, where the man who turned around Leicester's season, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, had a woeful time with his out-of-hand kicking.

A scrappy Boks side were held to 22-16 at half-time before their superior fitness told. Against a good Test side - which Ireland are - such failure to impose themselves will be exposed.

Now for the positives. The lock pairing of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield put in another supreme effort; in fact, the entire tight five performed well, albeit against inferior opposition, but Ireland will be aware of the way even England failed to outmuscle the Boks up front in Perth last year.

In the crash-tackling De Wet Barry and the imaginative Marius Joubert, the Springboks finally have a centre pairing to inspire hope in the midfield, though they are all too aware of the task that awaits them in the form of Brian O'Driscoll. At full-back, the erratic Gaffie du Toit is set to return to the Test arena after a gap of five years, armed with new confidence and a bazooka of a left foot.

However, injuries have shorn White of first XV players. Percy Montgomery (full-back), Willemse, Joe van Niekerk (No 8), Os du Randt and Faan Rautenbach (props), and Pedrie Wannenburg (flank) are all sidelined.

Yet hope springs eternal. The new Northampton director of coaching, Alan Solomons, feels "there is too much going for South Africa and too much going against Ireland. The Springboks will win in Bloemfontein. But I am not prepared to call the Newlands Test. It will be a 50-50 game."

The former Ulster coach added: "I was impressed with the Bok pack and I believe South Africa can attack Ireland in the front row. There is so much talent in the Bok squad, and watching on Wednesday again made me realise that no country - New Zealand included - has as much natural talent as South Africa."

But, as ever, there are negatives. Sometimes so shambolic on the field they resemble little more than a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs, off the park controversy is never far away. Having had a complete overhaul of personnel since the World Cup, after which no one was given preferential treatment - managing director Rian Oberholzer, coach Rudolf Straeuli and captain Corne Krige all left Sarfu's Cape Town offices clutching P45s - the new guard remains as flawed as the old. Only last week the union's MD, Songezo Nayo, resigned after a fall-out with Sarfu president Brian van Rooyen.

White brings a lot of technical nous to the coaching position, but he came in for stick recently when he instructed Schalk Burger and Matfield to cut their flowing locks; the players dutifully carried out his orders, but it smacked of a schoolmaster-pupil relationship. One is left to ponder what O'Driscoll might have made of that if it had happened within the Irish set-up.

Hooker John Smit of the Durban-based Sharks leads the players out of the tunnel, which makes for an English-speaking coach and captain in an Afrikaans-dominated sport. The last time choice English bounced off the dressing-room walls was in the eras of Ian McIntosh and Nick Mallett (coaches) and Gary Teichmann and Bob Skinstad (captains) - when there were more ticks in the 'wins' column than the 'losses'.

For once, the issue of racial quotas isn't dominating discussion, and the Boks are likely to start with at least two blacks, scrum-half Bolla Conradie and wing Breyton Paulse, who replaces Willemse.

Ireland might bring some ring-rust to Bloemfontein, a reason why Solomons picks the hosts. But no one is under-estimating the tourists, who have never won on Bok soil. In an ever-changing South Africa, that is also a statistic that might change in the next fortnight.

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