Springbok coach Carel du Plessis is rightly looking ahead to the 1999 World Cup, but this seems to have blinded him to the needs of winning Tests in the present Tri-nations series
THERE are any number of questions to be answered in the wake of the 35-32 defeat of the Springboks at the hands of the All Blacks at Ellis Park last Saturday; a win away from home that gives the All Blacks five points and should tie up the Tri- nations series for the New Zealanders for the second successive year.
The first question, surely, is one of attitude among the South African players. This was most particularly shown in the decision of captain Gary Teichmann to opt for the draw in the final stages of what had been an enthralling match by asking Jannie de Beer to go for posts with a penalty.
Running the ball at an All Black side, that had admittedly been superb on defence, could have won the game for the Springboks and, in the analysis, even if they had failed to score, the eventual outcome would have been the same. The only difference would have been the gulf between the bang that could have been and the whimper that was.
De Beer, after his shaky start in helping win the final Test against the British Lions, turned in a performance which has earned him the proprietary rights to the No 10 green and gold jersey, especially for his two pinpoint drop goals that would otherwise have left the scoreline distinctly lopsided.
Sadly, though, the rookie centres outside him have much to learn about rugby at this level. Where De Beer – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – committed himself to the tackle, Danie van Schalkwyk and Percy Montgomery wavered.
The gaps in the match psychology of coach Carel du Plessis showed here more clearly than anywhere else. Du Plessis persists in repeating the thought that this is the team that will carry South Africa’s hopes of retaining the World Cup to Wales in 1999. Contrast this thinking with the approach of All Black coach John Hart.
He too is looking ever more closely at the World Cup in Wales and has some eminently qualified young players in the mould of Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga coming through. But, given the priorities of the present, he plumped for 35-year-old veteran Frank Bunce at centre ahead of the younger Alama Ieremia.
Quite simply, Wales is a season-and-a-half away. There was the more pressing business of a Test match at Ellis Park to be won. Hart’s decision proved a sage one. Bunce was the vital ingredient that broke what looked like a South African deluge with that skilfully-crafted 14th minute try.
The record books which will chronicle the highest-scoring Test between the two arch rivals, will perhaps not detail the way Bunce’s score changed the face of the match. But it did.
In retrospect, it would have been a more logical move for Du Plessis to have recognised – as Hart did – the pressing needs of the present and played Henry Honiball at inside centre alongside De Beer. The reasons for this were seemingly twofold before the Tri-nations series opener.
De Beer had looked unsure of himself in his debut Test against the Lions where Honiball’s experience could have helped enormously if that shakiness persisted.
Honiball would arguably not have given Bunce as much space to manoeuvre either. Whether Honiball, rejected at flyhalf by Du Plessis, would have stopeed Bunce entirely remains a matter of conjecture. But it could well be argued that had he managed to get a big tackle in on the two-try All Black hero early on in the proceeedings, Bunce would have been less willing to try for the breaks than he proved to be. Honiball’s nickname “Lem” has not been bestowed for nothing.
Yet Du Plessis cannot seem to come round to this and has picked a half-fit Japie Mulder to travel to Australasia and plug the gap in the middle that is purely of his own creation when Hennie le Roux is left languishing in the boondocks.
If Mulder cannot come back to match fitness and fill the holes that currently surround the defensive make-up of the Van Schalkwyk- Montgomery pairing, one senses that the Springboks are in dead trouble Down Under. For, after all, it was superb South African tackling as much as inspired running and the boot of discard Joel Stransky that won this country’s finest the World Cup.
The other vital question also centres on attitude, albeit of a somewhat different nature. The query is simply this: if the All blacks had been leading 23-7 after the first half hour, what would the final score have been? One would tend to think that the answer is somewhere in the nature of a 40-14 scoreline.
The forwards had given Du Plessis exactly the kind of start he wanted, pounding the All Black line from the kick-off and laying the base for the tries from Naka Drotske in the fifth minute and Russel Bennett 21 minutes into the match.
From this point, there was the dis-tinct reality of a Springbok victory in the air and a growing belief in the pre-match convictions of Du Plessis and Teichmann that the South Africans did indeed have both the men and the match plan to beat the All Blacks.
All that faded in the matter of two minutes when Jeff Wilson charged down an attempted blindside grubber by Joost van der Westhuizen and raced in to beat Ruben Kruger to the touchdown. It almost seems as if those little kicks and breaks from Van der Westhuizen have become predictable. Certainly, the All Blacks are right there, aware that they are coming. If this is indeed the case, some of the best weapons in the armoury of a very special scrumhalf have been nullified.
Two minutes later, Carlos Spencer made sure from another chip and chase by Wilson and the air of expectancy in the crowd vanished like an early morning highveld mist. There was an air of inevitability about the proceedings even though the Springboks still led 23-19 at the break.
Bunce again made the difference, running in a 40m plus effort in the 48th that earned the All Blacks the bonus point for a fourth try.
Against this, all South Africa had to offer by way of reply was the booming boot of De Beer.
Then came that call from the captain to his flyhalf with four minutes left on the clock; a difficult kick form De Beer’s wrong side. He tried, oh how he tried, but the upright pushed the ball away and that was that.
Somehow, there was the feeling that, great game though this undoubtedly was, there could only be one winner.
It showed in the posture of the Boks, something that the All Blacks – even without their captain Sean Fitzpatrick for the best part of the second half – gave nary a whisper of even when they were well down on the scoreboard.
It is perhaps a good thing that Du Plessis has the chance to take his squad out of the country and hone some of the steel which is undoubtedly in this band of players without the distractions of home and the local critics.
But, that said, the coach will do well to remember that the object is to win today as well as the year after next.