Which Boks have had their day?
Defeat shines an uncomfortable light, illuminating the areas you hoped no one would notice. After losing to an Irish side that was a player short for 50 minutes, the Springbok team and management have to acknowledge a few things. They also have to ask themselves some searching questions.
Is it, for instance, preferable to lose a game playing the way South Africa did at Newlands — or would you opt for the way they lost at Twickenham against New Zealand in last year’s semifinal of the World Cup?
At Newlands there was a clear intention to play rugby; at Twickenham the idea was to stop the opposition from playing. Within that dichotomy lies the future of Springbok rugby.
It would be easy to argue that the recall to the squad of Morné Steyn was an example of firmly placing one’s back to the future. Steyn was the third flyhalf in the squad for the World Cup, selected ahead of Elton Jantjies as some form of “insurance policy” by Heyneke Meyer.
He enters the set-up now because Allister Coetzee insists that Garth April will not be “thrown to the wolves”. We are dealing with euphemisms here. If April was never going to be part of the match-day squad, he should not have been selected.
In the days since Saturday’s defeat it has become de rigueur to blame everything on the decision-making of the two Lions halfbacks, Faf de Klerk and Jantjies. Not enough kicks into the space behind the advancing Irish defence, not enough breaking around the fringes — in short, not enough variety. Add to that the lateral running of Willie le Roux and the Springboks failed to exploit the space inherent in a 14-man side.
But there is so much more to it than that. De Klerk and Jantjies have been the outstanding halfbacks in Super Rugby this year and have never been criticised for a lack of variety. At Newlands, De Klerk brought a zip to the base of the rucks and mauls not seen since the early days of Fourie du Preez, and Jantjies’s pop passes and intelligent running should have brought more reward.
Amid the cries for change, did anyone remember the last time a Springbok coach selected a diminutive scrumhalf and a left-footed flyhalf together? It was 1999 in Dunedin and the players in question were Dave von Hoesslin and Gaffie du Toit. New Zealand won 28-0 and nothing was ever the same again. Gary Teichmann was shown the door as captain and player, and Nick Mallett lost the moral high ground as Springbok coach.
The difference between then and now is that Mallett had Joost van der Westhuizen and Henry Honiball to call on; Coetzee has a bucketful of talented flyhalves, all of whom bar Jantjies are currently unavailable, but De Klerk is head and shoulders above the next best South African scrumhalf. Both men should be given their head and told to run the show, not binned like Du Toit and von Hoesslin.
To that end, the link between eight and nine, 10 and 12 needs to be examined. Duane Vermeulen’s presence in the squad is problematic and that’s the way he played. There was none of the terrifying certainty he brings when at his best and it suggests that his mind was elsewhere. The injury he sustained may be a blessing in disguise, giving Warren Whiteley the chance to stake his claim and unite the Lions’s eight, nine and 10 axis in the Bok side.
As for the inside centre position, on Saturday Damian de Allende stood out as being unable to play the pattern set by the halfbacks. Crucially, De Allende was the recipient of most of Jantjies’s passes, but he was standing still and unable to straighten the line in the manner that made him indispensable in 2015.
It happens in rugby that players go from hero to zero in a season. De Allende’s rise to prominence was surprising because he looked extremely limited as a neophyte at Western Province and the Stormers, with particularly poor ball-handling skills. Yet his ability to cross the gain line made him a coach’s favourite (Coetzee being the coach in question) and he worked on his handling skills sufficiently to make it to international level.
Injury has curtailed De Allende’s Super Rugby appearances this year and on Saturday it was plain to see that he was, in racehorse terminology, short of a gallop. He is, however, 24 and capable of returning to the form of 2015.
JP Pietersen, by contrast, is a month short of his 30th birthday and now has two successive seasons of mediocre play on his CV. Thirty is not old, but there are a lot of miles on the clock; he has been playing Super Rugby since the age of 19. Against Ireland, Pietersen was put into space on several occasions, but plainly lacked the pace to exploit the gap.
What marked Pietersen out and made him a matchwinner was the gallop of a 400m runner and the power to break and make tackles in critical situations. It was his tackle that kept South Africa in the tournament against Fiji at the 2007 World Cup. His retention for the first Test of the season was all about the past, paying no mind to the future. But Test rugby is a hard place, with no room for sentiment or retirement plans.
So, despite the mixed signals following Steyn’s call-up, Coetzee’s first series in charge will inevitably be about discovering which dogs have had their day and which can adapt to the change that is coming. If Ireland happen to win two in a row, the clearing-out process may happen next week, rather than next year.