Pride or bust for Boks

With no time to lick their wounds and the chances of Tri-Nations success now but the slimmest of mathematical chances, the Boks face the Wallabies on Saturday in Durban.

Sniffing blood in the water, the Wallabies will aim to break their touring hoodoo and win their first game on South African soil since 2000.

Bok coach Peter de Villiers has made only two changes to last week’s failed starting line-up, putting in Conrad Jantjes at fullback in place of Percy Montgomery, who drops to the bench. More bad news is that Bryan Habana, who provided most of the attacking flair in last week’s game, suffered a grade one hamstring tear while doing so. Cheetahs wing Jongi Nokwe will make his second Test start and hopefully fill Habana’s big boots on the left wing.

De Villiers has retained two loose forwards on the bench, with Joe van Niekerk joining Luke Watson.
De Villiers is clearly hoping for more options at the breakdown. This gamble has left no cover at lock, so look for both Andries Bekker and Victor Matfield to play out the full 80 minutes.

Frustratingly, De Villiers does not seem to be willing to change much of the tactics which obviously did not work last week. The lesson that was abundantly obvious in that game is that it is the breakdown that will make or break a team’s chances. The Springboks’ scrumming and lineout work was solid, but good set-pieces come to nothing when the opposition can so easily turn over the ball at the ruck, nullifying any attacking play, as Richie McCaw and his pack did in Newlands.

De Villiers acknowledges this, saying on Monday that ‘we were not accurate in contact. That’s our only problem ... I hope the players will execute it correctly against the Wallabies.”

But stating the problem is not the same as rectifying it and, by keeping the same pack intact against the Wallabies, the Boks are again setting themselves up for the same situation, particularly as they will be playing against world-class fetchers George Smith and Phil Waugh.

South African rugby still lacks a fetcher of the class of McCaw, who is staking his claim as the best player in the game right now. Neither Schalk Burger, who looked vulnerable last week, nor Luke Watson, who has yet to make an impact in the Tri-Nations, seem to be fulfilling that role. Perhaps it is time for De Villiers to rope in specialist fetchers such as Wikus van Heerden or the uncapped Cobus Grobbelaar and make it their job to focus exclusively on going into the contact points in search of the loose ball.

This approach might seem as though it is too blindly copying that of the All Blacks, but De Villiers’s ambitions of a more expansive Bok gameplan will come to nothing if his backline does not get quality ball.

The rules of the game have changed and the Springbok approach has to change as well. The big and brawling Bok loose trio, which so easily dominated opposition last year, is being outplayed by the more athletic and dynamic loose forwards of their Tri-Nations opponents. Under the new laws the ball is in play for longer periods, as we saw last week in one particular instance when play continued for a full three minutes, including two quick throw-ins and visits to both ends of the pitch.

In the Wallabies camp coach Robbie Deans has the luxury of knowing pretty much what his first XV can do. With first-choice scrumhalf Luke Burgess out injured, Sam Cordingley has been given the nod to start at number nine, partnering danger-man flyhalf Matt Giteau. The most puzzling omission from the Wallabies team is experienced lock Nathan Sharpe, who Deans elected not to include in his touring squad. With lineout specialist Daniel Vickerman back from injury and a guaranteed starter, Deans has partnered him with the in-form James Horwill.

With their position at the bottom of the Tri-Nations log looking far too set, the Springboks must now play to regain some pride.

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