Boks without the spring

If you can’t celebrate when you beat the All Blacks, when can you? The Springboks are World Champions for another two years and they have a benign draw for this year’s Tri-Nations. They played well enough in Bloemfontein to suggest that this could be their year, and yet —

Bloemfontein was not full for last Saturday’s contest and Durban will also be short of a full house. When Australia play in Cape Town next week the “house full” signs may go up, but Newlands is a small ground in modern terms and this will be the only Test of the year in the Mother City.

Andy Marinos, the acting managing director of SA Rugby, tried to put a positive spin on things in a press release last week.
He said: “We have experienced an exceptional sporting year, all of it crammed into the period before the start of the Tri-Nations and what might be called ‘event fatigue’ may come into it.”

The press release tried to convince us that the British and Irish Lions tour, the Indian Premier League and the Confederations Cup had conspired to rob the Springboks of jam-packed stadiums. “It can’t be the event,” claimed Marinos. “We have one of the most decorated Springbok teams of all time that has just added a Lions series to a Rugby World Cup title and has the potential to win the Tri-Nations.”

All of which would be far more convincing if there were no other factors at play. But there are plenty. This particular Springbok team is about to break up. Half a dozen of Saturday’s team will be playing in Europe next year. Time was when those players would have been past the 50-cap mark and hoping to have enough puff left to blow out more than 30 candles on their birthday cakes. No more.

The likes of Frans Steyn and Bryan Habana can cherry-pick the games they’d like to play for South Africa. Habana is 26, Steyn 22 and both have World Cup winner’s medals. They can earn euros or pounds for the next two years, then slip back into this country in time to catch the Springbok coach’s eye ahead of the 2011 World Cup.

There will be those in the corridors of power and plenty of fans who consider such actions to be tantamount to treason. But it is merely a case of market forces asserting themselves and not something to get upset about. When the time comes, Steyn and Habana will have to compete for their Test place with unknown talent.

The trouble is that we already know what the future looks like, and New Zealand’s coach Graham Henry will tell you that it’s not a pretty sight. A few injuries to key players and a wagonload of former stars now campaigning in Europe add up to what we witnessed in Bloemfontein: a less than full house watching a desperately poor All Blacks team.

Spin doctors such as Marinos may try to convince us otherwise: a visiting team without time to prepare to play at altitude, which decided behind closed doors that they would target this week’s Durban Test and ignore the jet-lagged display of Bloemfontein.

Well, that sort of thing may wash with mealy-mouthed PR companies, but true rugby supporters know better. This isn’t just any team of wide-eyed tourists wandering through the republic: this is the All Blacks! Imagine Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Christian Cullen and the like being told that they could be happy with a 50% win ratio in South Africa.

The fact is that a whole henhouse full of chickens have come home to roost in New Zealand and “event fatigue” is precisely what we are talking about. People have become bored with the Tri-Nations.

Generations who lived and died on the results of Springbok-All Black Tests have been replaced by people who have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon and will catch the action on the highlights channel. And some of those people happen to be playing for their countries.

It would be easy to fall back on the swings and roundabouts of competition. It’s not South Africa’s fault that New Zealand are weak at the moment and we should celebrate defeating the old foe because they would do the same in our place. But these are not normal times.

The All Blacks being weak and not drawing capacity crowds happens to coincide with the planned expansion of the Super 14. New Zealand have had submissions from Taranaki and Hawkes Bay for the 15th franchise, whereas the South African Rugby Union’s only claimant is the Southern Kings from the Eastern Cape. Australia, by contrast, have generated no less than seven submissions and the Australian Rugby Union has asked for business plans from all of them.

Has anyone considered the fact that a Super 15 will have less money to play with than a Super 14? Yes, they have; that’s why the proposed structure involves far less travel and removes the need for each franchise to play against all the others.

The global economic meltdown means that this is a time to be tightening belts, not loosening them, and if empty seats and migrating players don’t wake up our administrators then maybe it’s time for some new administrators.