Springboks in with a chance

When the draw for Rugby World Cup 2007 was made, certain things were assumed. It seemed a foregone conclusion, for instance, that the big game in Pool A would be South Africa against England and that the only potential giant-killer among the other three teams in the group would be Samoa.

After all, England, the eventual champions in 2003, had played the Boks in the group phase back then and had been tested really only by a plucky Samoan side that had had the temerity to lead at half time. It was stretching the bounds of credibility to believe that the same three nations had been grouped together again, the draw, as ever, having been cooked to the extent that it should probably have been broadcast on the food channel.

But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Four years on from their proudest moment, England and Samoa are a shambles, while South Africa are potential world-beaters. And, as it turns out, the final weekend of pool play is about as predictable as a baby’s bottom—and not just for the denizens of Pool A.

England should beat Tonga but, after the performance put up by the islanders against the Boks, few are prepared to wager money on that prediction. Given the leaden displays from the defending champions thus far, it is perfectly possible to envisage a scenario where Tonga will play Australia in the quarterfinals.

It is equally possible to imagine an upset at the Stade de France on Saturday, but when the draw was made that would have meant Argentina beating Ireland, rather than vice versa.

Ireland were supposed to be contenders in this World Cup and their presence in Pool D alongside the Pumas and France gave it the title of “Group of Death”. Instead Brian O’Driscoll’s men have been the biggest disappointment of the tournament, far more so than England, whose form line pointed straight down.

We were not to know at the time that the opening game of the tournament would be the equivalent of South Africa against Australia in 1995. France were supposed to dispose of the plucky Pumas and cruise their way towards a meeting with the Boks at the semifinal stage. Instead, Argentina arrive at their final pool match needing just a bonus point to finish top of Pool D.

Even if it were not plain as a pikestaff that the Pumas will beat Ireland, consider this: the one and only time the two sides met on French soil was in a quarterfinal playoff at the 1999 World Cup. The game was played at the Felix Bollaert Stadium in Lens, where the Boks battled to beat Tonga last week. Argentina won a knife-edge contest 28-24. This week it promises to be considerably more one-sided.

Wales play Fiji in Nantes and Scotland play Italy in St Etienne to decide which teams finish second in Pools B and C. But since none of the quartet has a snowball’s chance of progressing beyond the last eight, both games are largely irrelevant.

It would be easy to write off South Africa’s match against the United States in similar fashion. After all, the result is not in doubt. But notwithstanding François Steyn’s absolution in mid-week, it seems a racing certainty that either an Eagles player or, more likely, a citing commissioner will want to make a name for himself.

The worst-case scenario would be for the Boks to lose one or both of Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana ahead of the knock-out stages. Habana has proved at this tournament that coach Jake White was correct in identifying early in his tenure the need for speed out wide.

Habana’s special quality is placed in sharp relief by comparing his play with that of Ashwin Willemse. The latter was brought back into the Springbok fold earlier this year not because he had rediscovered the form of 2003, but because he was still pulling in a massive salary based upon those performances of four years ago.

Those in the halls of power who ignored the effect of major surgery on Willemse’s pace and ability to change direction, just to save a few bob by not accommodating (and paying) a newcomer, should hang their heads in shame. 

As for Matfield, it is good to know that the best lock in world rugby is South African. Thankfully the days are behind us when those who like their locks strong, silent and dull had a say in keeping Matfield out of the team.

It is amazing to discover that he is the only survivor from the starting line up when the Springboks last played the US. Houston, Texas, on December 1 2001 marked the low point of Harry Viljoen’s troubled tenure as Springbok coach. The half-back combination of Deon de Kock and Louis Koen was the worst in Springbok history and it was no surprise when Viljoen resigned a few weeks later.

Why open up old wounds? To put into context where we have been and where we are going. This squad is not a bunch of down and outs in green and gold jerseys; they are good enough to be crowned champions of the world.

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