True measure of Springboks' success

It can’t quite replace the feeling engendered in last year’s World Cup final, but for the second time in two years the Springboks ended the season on an immense high after beating England.

In 2007 in Paris it was 15-6, but South Africa were in such control of the contest for most of the time that it may as well have been the 42-6 recorded at Twickenham last week.

The difference this time around is that you couldn’t see it coming.

‘The engine never got going’
In 2007 the Springboks were a fine side with well-rested players and the draw opened up for them the moment France lost to Argentina in the opening fixture.

In 2008 the engine never got going and there was the constant feeling that something was causing the Springboks to hold back.

They broke loose just twice: at Ellis Park against Australia and at Twickenham last week.

It would be easy to rewrite history and concentrate on those two games as the true yardstick of South Africa’s first year as world champions. Easy, but wrong.

The measure of any successful side should be against its peers and, as uplifting as last week’s display may have been, the abiding memory of 2008 remains the four defeats in the Tri-Nations.

South Africa finished at the bottom of the three-team pile again and no amount of wins against northern-hemisphere opposition should be allowed to obscure that fact.

Blown out of proportion
Both Bok wins in the Tri-Nations were blown out of proportion. Ricky Januarie’s try in Dunedin was brilliant, but it was only one feature of a fine match that could have gone either way.

The 53-8 defeat of Australia was remarkable, but it should be remembered that it came a week after the same opponents had won 27-15 in Durban.

There is good reason to believe that the Wallabies did little in the intervening week other than celebrate their first win on South African soil in eight years.

Traditionally Australian sides, especially those playing in the Super 14, target one game on a tour of South Africa, leaving the others to providence. They have almost given up hope of beating the Boks at altitude and so everything was focused on the sea-level Test in Durban.

Naturally, successive Springbok coaches and players have exploited this obvious Australian frailty and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wallabies don’t expect to play well on the highveld, so they don’t. The Boks expect to win, so they do.

Which brings us back to last week’s concluding Test of a bruising season, where South Africa managed to play as though they were as fresh as daisies when all the pre-match evidence suggested otherwise.

Previous end-of-season tours had tended to slide downhill and after the fortunate escape against Scotland this one seemed headed the same way.

Two things conspired in South Africa’s favour: England are not very good at the moment and there has never been a time in history when the Springboks needed to be motivated to play against them.

The last point is an important one. We are told year in and year out that South Africa against New Zealand is the most important fixture in world rugby, the one that decided the world championship in the days prior to the Rugby World Cup.

And yet there have been numerous post-isolation instances of South Africa simply failing to turn up.

Think of Pretoria in 2003, when the All Blacks won 52-16, or Dunedin in 1999 when the Boks went down 28-0. On both occasions it wasn’t the size of the score that was important, it was the manner in which the Boks accepted their opponents’ superiority.

Yet at their lowest ebb, when they lost 53-3 at Twickenham in 2002, the Boks did not lack motivation.

Famously, Jannes Labuschagne lasted just 14 minutes that day because he was simply too motivated. Labuschagne’s assault on Jonny Wilkinson was, in essence, the game plan.

Rudolf Straeuli’s team knew they were inferior to an England team that won the World Cup a year later, but they refused to go down without a fight.

There’s more to it
So it’s possible to see the antecedents for last week’s handsome win, but there are other important factors.

It was Ruan Pienaar’s third game in three weeks at flyhalf and it’s a damn shame he won’t get another for at least three months.

Pienaar grasped his opportunity with both hands and the coaching staff has the right to thumb their noses at the critics who didn’t like seeing him picked out of position.

Elsewhere events conspired to consign the experiment of playing John Smit at tighthead to the dustbin of history. Saturday was Smit’s best Test of the season and it is no coincidence that it was the first match on tour where he was picked as first-choice hooker.

The lesson to be learned is that, fine captain though he is, Smit is not going to prolong his Test career by playing somewhere else in the front row.

Best not to select on sentiment
There is a long time between now and the arrival of the British Lions in June and it would be extremely rash if the selectors were to select the Springbok team on sentiment.

If Smit is the best hooker in the country in next year’s Super 14, pick him. If not, leave him out.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the achievement of Jean de Villiers, this year’s South African player of the season and players’ player of the year.

De Villiers is the man who makes the backline tick in any team he plays for and if Smit fails to make the cut, then the Bok captaincy should go to the Western Province man rather than Victor Matfield.

This year has been a rarity in De Villiers’s career, in that he has avoided serious injury.

Consequently his confidence levels have been sky high and other players have thrived on that fact.

It’s hard to believe that the admirable Adi Jacobs would have had such an amazing return to Test rugby without De Villiers standing next to him. May he continue to stay out of harm’s way in 2009.

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