If You Can’t Beat Em Eat Em

Outrageous acts on the field and selection blunders off it have blighted the South African tour of New Zealand

RUGBY: Barney Spender

IT has hardly been the best of weeks for the South African touring team. In the space of just five days they have lost a test series to the All Blacks, seen a player sent home for biting and lost to a provincial team for the first time on tour. In more senses than one it could be said the team has lost its head.

Much has already been written about Johan le Roux. Suffice to say that whatever the provocation, and some of Le Roux’s colleagues have since suggested that Sean Fitzpatrick was providing him with some ammunition for retaliation, biting has no place on the rugby field.

Apart from its cowardly nature it is also potentially very dangerous. Infections pass through blood and saliva and in the modern day perhaps both players should be packed off to hospital for both tetanous injections and Aids tests.

The argument over Le Roux these past few days has centred not so much on his guilt — TV condemned him out of hand — as the strictness of the sentence. A 20-month worldwide ban was the result and there is the possibility of Louis Luyt instructing his puppets at the South African Rugby Football Union to suspend him for life from rugby in South Africa. Looking at the crime, it is hard to argue.

But if, as Voltaire and a few French coaches might say, the severity is designed “pour encourager les autres”, then one has to ask why the new Zealand authorities who handed out the ban were so lenient on their own prop Richard Loe.

Loe, playing for Waikato, was given a nine-month ban, reduced to six on appeal, after being caught, like Le Roux, on TV gouging the eyes of Otago’s Greg Cooper. New Zealand made an example of him by picking him for the All Blacks again as soon as he was available. What kind of advertisement for the game is that?

Make no mistake, gouging, biting and “bagsnatching” are all equally hideous but the South African authorities should not divert all their attentions into a Johan le Roux witch-hunt. He is the effect of the game at home, the authorities need to examine the cause.

What makes players do it? And if, like Le Roux, they have a history of it, why are the provinces not nipping it in the bud? And why, when anyone could have told them that Le Roux was an accident waiting to happen, do they continue to pick him and players of his ilk?

Selection, though, is a peculiar business; selectors a peculiar breed.

The loss of the test and the Otago game will, no doubt, spark a big debate about the future of coach Ian McIntosh.

There have already been calls for the return of John Williams, but to change the coach now would be premature and unwise.

It is true that, sometimes, there has been a lack of pattern and edge to the team, never more so that on Wednesday when they played completely the wrong sort of game. Skating around the field in conditions which Ollie le Roux might have recognised from his water polo days, the South Africans insisted on playing a passing, dry weather game.

While Otago’s Stephen Bachop made life a misery with clever kicking into the corners, the South Africans attempted to run the ball, which was as slippery as soap, back at them. Where was the tactical kicking? Where was the chip over the top to make the defense turn and cover? Where was Joel Stransky?

The last is a question which has, almost certainly, vexed McIntosh’s mind over the past six weeks.

It is easy in retrospect to select sides but, at the time, it was only the selectors and certain Northern Transvaal rugby followers who would contend that Lance Sherrell was the second-best flyhalf in the country.

No disrespect to Sherrell, who has excelled in provincial rugby on occasion and is a thoroughly nice man, but more than likely, if he put his hand on his heart, he would agree. The argument is not with Sherrell but with the selectors who, somehow, ignored a player who was number one in the country 12 months ago and who had a stunning game for South Africa A against the English.

He may not be capable of Hennie le Roux’s moments of dashing flair but he is the more complete player, one who can govern a game from the pivotal position.

The non-selection of Stransky is not the only blunder made before the side left Johannesburg.

The fact that Japie Mulder walked straight into the test team suggests another error of judgment in the original selection.

Apart from selection, McIntosh has had to deal with a huge number of injuries. Before the team left he was denied the services of flyhalf Henry Honiball, wing Jacques Olivier, lock Hannes Strydom, flanker Ian McDonald, hooker Naka Drotske and fullbacks Gavin Johnson and Chris Dirks, among others, though Johnson joins the party today as a replacement for Theo van Rensburg.

Prior to Van Rensburg, four others had flown home from the tour and yet another four, Chester Williams, Francois Pienaar, Balie Swart and Rudolph Straeuli have been put out for lengthy spells.

It all adds up to a nightmare for the coach, although McIntosh must be aware that the knives are being sharpened; that time is running out.

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