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01 Oct 2003 00:00
South Africa, the 1995 Rugby World Cup champions and third-place nation in 1999, appear to be a long way off the pace as they embarks for Perth to start their third World Cup campaign.
With a preparation riddled with injuries and controversies, as well as a series of inexplicable selection decisions by coach Rudolf Straeuli, it seems the once mighty Springboks could be easy pickings for the likes of England, New Zealand, Australia or France.
And it wouldn’t surprise many, either, if the South Africans came up with a loss against the likes of Argentina, Scotland or Ireland.
But that’s all on paper.
The truth is the squad is confident and admirably led by Corne Krige, a flanker who revels in hard graft.
He leads less by fine rhetoric than by his sheer physical presence.
That style of confrontational play, however, has been the Springboks’ downfall lately, with imaginative rugby being sacrificed for aggression.
Injuries have made Straeuli’s selections a little difficult, but the baffling exclusion of the likes of centre Robbie Fleck and utility back Brent Russell has rival defences breathing collective sighs of relief.
In the midfield, Straeuli has opted for only one seasoned specialist centre in De Wet Barry, and has chosen six fullbacks, most who are utility players in any case.
While there is no doubting the potential of many of them, just how they will stand up to the massive test posed by England in their October 18 group match at Perth’s Subiaco Oval is a cause for concern.
The rest of South Africa’s group games—against Uruguay, Georgia and Samoa—should be easier, but Samoa’s open style of play, as well as their hard, physical approach to the game, could unsettle the Boks.
Jaco van der Westhuyzen was a late addition when Jean de Villiers injured a shoulder in a warm-up match last week. Van der Westhuyzen had injured his knee in the win over Australia at Cape Town in July and was omitted from Straeuli’s original 30-man roster.
“Jaco has been part of the Springbok training group throughout the season and narrowly missed inclusion in the [original] World Cup squad. He is familiar with the squad set up and should settle in quickly,” said Straeuli, going into damage-control mode.
“We considered calling in a specialist centre, but opted for a player that brings versatility in that he can cover fullback and flyhalf, and also offers another kicking option.”
Obviously the crucial match is against England: win that, and South Africa should progress to the semifinals. At that point, the unpredictable nature of World Cup rugby would give the Springboks an even-money chance of going all the way.
Lose against England and they face a quarterfinal against the All Blacks—arguably the best team in the world right now. That would almost certainly mean elimination.
What the Springboks have in their favour is the fact that the team has had to gel into a close unit during the final weeks of preparation.
In the face of a scandal around an alleged racial incident involving locks Geo Cronje and Quinton Davids, neither of whom made the final World Cup roster, they closed ranks and are determined to draw strength from the criticism directed at them.
Also, the truth is they have many hugely talented players in their ranks.
In Joe van Niekerk, one of the five International Rugby Board players of the year, they have a loose forward of the highest quality. He is returning to form after a long layoff through injury and, at his best, will test any defensive line.
Lock Victor Matfield is among the classiest lineout forwards in the world, and his ball skills make him an important link in a Springbok gameplan that will revolve around taking the ball up the middle.
Joost van der Westhuizen, the most capped Springbok to date with 85 tests, and the hero of many Springbok triumphs, will be the first-choice scrumhalf at the start of the tournament.
But, at 32, Van der Westhuizen also represents exactly what is wrong with Springbok rugby.
As inspirational as his presence in the squad may be, it has caused the exclusion of the likes of Johannes Conradie, an emerging Springbok scrumhalf who couldn’t force his way into contention.
If South Africa reach the semifinals or beyond, it will be because their players will have sacrificed skill for defensive capabilities.
It won’t be pretty, and it will all depend on the prodigious boot of flyhalf Louis Koen and his inexperienced understudy Derick Hougaard.
But don’t expect Straeuli to take any risks.—Sapa-AP
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