Sport

100-year legacy seeks protection in Lansdowne Road

Andy Capostagno

When the Springboks play at the Aviva Stadium against Ireland, it will be three weeks short of exactly 100 years since they first played there.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer. (Gallo)

Paul Roos's tourists of 1912, the team that gave the Springboks their name, played Ireland in Belfast, so it fell to Billy Millar's men to open proceedings for South Africa at the stadium known then and for the rest of the 20th century as Lansdowne Road.

To say that Millar's team made an auspicious debut would be something of an understatement, for with hat-tricks from Free State flyer Boetie McHardy and Diggers wing Jan Stegmann, the Boks won 38-0. An Irish crowd accustomed to "soft" days and scores like 3-0 and 6-3 must have thought the Martians had landed.

It was a match for the record books in many ways. Stegmann and McHardy became the first Springboks to score a hat-trick of tries. The next instance came all of 43 years later, when Tom van Vollenhoven scored three against the Lions in the 1955 Test at Newlands.

It was also the highest score recorded by the Springboks in a Test, another long-lived record broken only by Hennie Muller's 1951 side's famous 44-0 win against Scotland. The 10 tries scored by Millar's team would remain in the record books even longer, until 1999, in fact, when Nick Mallett's Boks beat Italy 74-3 in Port Elizabeth, scoring 11 tries along the way.

Current coach Heyneke Meyer will be happy just to win, especially given the fact that Bok teams have lost three of their last four Tests in Dublin. But it would be encouraging to think that his team might mark the centenary with a more open display than has hitherto been the case this year. The selection of Pat Lambie at flyhalf may help in that respect, although the conservative nature of Meyer's psyche ensured that he selected Morné Steyn on the bench rather than Elton Jantjies.

Game-breaking try
Equally, the coach has chosen the broadsword ahead of the rapier at outside centre, where Juan de Jongh's game-breaking try in the Currie Cup final has been ignored in favour of the sheer bulk of Jaco Taute. The latter had been tipped to appear at fullback, allowing De Jongh to partner his provincial colleague Jean de Villiers, but the solid kicking game of Zane Kirchner has again been preferred as the coach's metaphorical worry blanket.

One hundred years ago, rugby union was still emerging from the shadow of association football and the round-ball game was evident in forward play that preferred "foot rushes" and "dribbling" to the excesses of the modern game. Forwards were generic and scrums were formed by the first players to arrive. The specialisation of roles was some way distant at Lansdowne Road in 1912.

What would Millar have made of Meyer's statements at this week's press conference? "I'm worried about depth in the five lock position and at tight head," he said. And what, also, of the newly adopted scrum engage system? Out goes "crouch, touch, pause, engage" and in comes "crouch, touch, set". The onus has moved from referee to players in the front row to control the process, although the ridiculous withdrawal of the prop's outside arm after the call of "touch" remains in place.

This test will also mark the addition of an eighth player on the bench as the International Rugby Board finishes its phasing in of the requirement for a whole front row among the substitutes. In effect, it means that the match-day team has grown from the 15 of 1912 to 23 in 2012.

Meyer's greatest concern in his opening six months in charge has been to manage the transition from the team that contested the World Cup in New Zealand to the one that might carry a nation's hopes in England in 2015. In this respect, he has had a very different time of it from his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, who tried to keep together Jake White's winning combination.

Meyer admits to an embarrassment of riches at flyhalf, but fears their collective youth. They needed to learn these conditions ahead of the next World Cup, he intimated during the week: "You can't coach experience." Equally, however, you cannot coach flair - and Lambie has that in spades.

It is quite possible that the young lad could have a bad day in the rain and cold predicted for Saturday, but don't bet on it. For one thing, he knows the venue, having made his debut as a second-half replacement for Steyn in 2010. Not long after coming on, Lambie was called upon to convert Gio Aplon's try and the points thus garnered proved the difference, as South Africa held on to beat a fast-finishing Ireland 23-21.

A host of first-choice players are unavailable to the hosts this weekend and the wounds inflicted by a 60-0 defeat in their last Test against New Zealand are still apparent.

If the Bok tight five finds its mojo early in this Test, it might be the beginning of a bold new era for Springbok rugby.

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