Blood, sweat and tears on the Gold Coast

Andy Colquhoun in Couran Cove

The gloves came off at training on Monday morning but it was a little later when they were followed to the earth by the blinkers that the Springboks’ season might just have taken a turn for the better.

It was an edgy day. The Springboks had decamped from Melbourne to Queensland’s Gold Coast, isolating themselves on a low- lying sliver of forested sand dunes just north of the high-rise party town of Surfer’s Paradise.

The R820-a-night Couran Cove resort is the kind of place you go to when you’re trying to pull yourself back from the brink of a nervous breakdown. The five-star accommodation units stand on stilts around a tranquil bay.
Kangaroos hop through the forests, kookaburras sit in the trees and if you’ve come to commune with nature you can hug bunnies until Peter Rabbit is ready to call in the animal protection unit.

There are no shops; the only bar closes at 9pm; the last ferry from the mainland leaves at 10pm and to get around each guest is issued with a bicycle. It’s Alcatraz disguised as paradise.

At the southern tip of the island on a cleared and fenced area is a sports field. It’s open to the winds from the ocean that carry monstrous surf to a 20km-long beach. And on Monday it was also open to the monstrous rage and gales of abrasive industrial language from a rugby coach. It was not a good day to be a Springbok player.

For two hours they were flogged through a gruelling succession of defensive drills and sprints and each time they thought they’d come to the end, they’d be whipped through another sequence of exercises.

Snapping at their heels throughout was the stinging tongue of Nick Mallett. He demonstrated a narrow vocabulary of expletives, but what he lacked in variety he compensated for in quantity. At one point Robbie Fleck, De Wet Barry, Albert van den Berg and Ollie le Roux received brutal dressing-downs, their coach’s jabbing index finger a loaded weapon under their noses.

Afterwards the players slunk wearily away on their bikes to strap on their emotional body armour before the psychological torture of the evening’s video debrief. Mallett was judge, jury and executioner and by the end of the night 11 Springboks were swinging from the gibbet (Andre Vos, Johan Erasmus, Werner Swanepoel and the absent Japie Mulder were the survivors).

But about this time a sea-change was also taking place in the management’s thinking. Up until then defeats had been blamed on unfamiliarity of the right players with the right plan. But now the blinkers were falling away. By the time Cats lock Jannes Labuschagne was called in as a replacement for centre Mulder late on Monday night the admission had partly been made: some of the wrong players with a flawed plan.

A centre leaves and a lock joins the party in the hope of giving the side the tight- five punch that was so clearly exposed as lacking by England. The likelihood is that Labuschagne will find himself on the Springbok bench next Saturday against the All Blacks, although it’s hard not to believe that the locks won’t be right until Labuschagne’s Cats partner Johan Ackermann is fit and in the Springbok jersey again.

But the present incumbents have been given a life. After watching the video again Mallett told them they were not cutting the mustard, punching their weight. Names were named (Krynauw Otto, Cobus Visagie and loose forward Andre Venter), fingers were pointed. When Labuschagne’s cellphone rang to tell him he was wanted in Australia a Rubicon had been crossed.

The pain continued on Wednesday. Two players vomited during another gruelling session and on Wednesday night the post-mortem continued with the one-on-one debriefs.

The much-maligned tight five had their say. The front row complained that scrumming practice had dropped off the agenda as a result of the obsession with second-phase possession.

They complained about the lack of drive coming from the locks and all the forwards grouched that it was hard to provide forward momentum when they frequently found themselves having to shuffle backwards and round before hitting subsequent rucks and mauls.

So it’s back to basics before the opening match of the Tri-Nations against the All Blacks in Christchurch - one of the Boks’ traditionally happier New Zealand hunting grounds.

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