Boks’ test lies on foreign soil

This year’s benevolent Tri-Nations draw is progressing according to plan for South Africa, but reports of the death of New Zealand rugby are ill-advised.

We will know a lot more about the real strength of this Springbok team after we see them play overseas. This week it’s Australia at Newlands. To summarise: two down, one to go and then the trouble starts.

It’s difficult to believe that a Wallaby team that lost to New Zealand three weeks ago can beat the Springboks in Cape Town. Especially a Wallaby team that was talked up in a big way before that Auckland encounter and then froze on the big occasion. But that defeat may tell us more about the inherent difficulties of playing away from home in the Tri-Nations than it does about the relative strengths of the three contestants.

As ever this competition will be decided by away wins and it will not be until they reach Perth on August 29 that the Springboks will have an opportunity to earn one. That’s why this year’s draw favours South Africa, for by the time of the Perth Test, the Wallabies will have completed their second match against the All Blacks, this time in Sydney. The Springboks will have a fortnight of rest and preparation behind them and will know exactly what they have to do.

That is always supposing that this week’s game at Newlands ends in the predicted home win and that the wins of the past fortnight are telling the truth: that this is an outstanding Springbok team that would have beaten a far more capable All Black outfit than either of the rabble that ran out in Bloemfontein and Durban.

In modern sport, coaches are given far greater prominence than they deserve. The bald truth is that great teams are made up of great players and selection is far more important than tactics. This Springbok team has its roots in the Jake White era. White understood the importance of continuity and of strong leadership.

White’s first Test was against Ireland in Bloemfontein on June 12 2004. His captain was John Smit, his locks were Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha and his scrumhalf was Fourie du Preez. Smit had previously led the Springboks just once: against Georgia during the team’s disastrous campaign at the 2003 World Cup. Five years later Smit has led the team 60 times, a new world record.

Also in the mix that day in 2004 was Jacque Fourie, who was on the bench but not used, and Schalk Burger, who is not available as a result of a suspension this week, but will go on tour to the Antipodes. By the time the 2004 Springboks reached Twickenham in November, White had added Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana to the mix.

By any standard, Smit, Matfield, Botha, Burger, Du Preez, Fourie, De Villiers and Habana are great players. Burger and Habana have been recognised by the International Rugby Board as international players of the year in the interim and all eight have Rugby World Cup winners’ medals. Four of the eight have also won both the Super 14 and Currie Cup with the Bulls. They have no new worlds to conquer.

If the strength of this Springbok team originated in the consistent selection of White, then the most important attribute of his successor, Peter de Villiers, is that he did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He persuaded both Smit and Matfield to return from France to play more Tests when Smit, for one, believed that his Springbok career was over.

Moreover, De Villiers was in charge as the Springboks bounced back from a poor Tri-Nations in 2008 with a strong showing in Europe on the end of year tour. Now they have won a series against the Lions and two Tests in two weeks against their strongest rival, New Zealand.

Yet, as Smit pointed out after last week’s win in Durban, records come with familiarity. He said that he has grown up with many of this team, seen them get married and begin families. Blood is thicker than water and what makes this team special is its ability to recognise and overcome crises.

It would be wrong to forget that the second Test against the Lions required a comeback of Lazarus-like proportions and an outrageous final kick from Morne Steyn. People have also quickly forgotten the match situation in Bloemfontein. The Boks led 17-3, then allowed New Zealand to get as close as 20-16. Jacque Fourie’s match winning try only came in the 71st minute.

The strength of character shown by Smit’s men is what allows us to suggest that this team might be on the cusp of greatness. To get there it has to do two things: win this week’s Test against the Wallabies and then at least one of its three overseas Tests. Do that and the Tri-Nations should be won for the first time since White’s team did it in 2004 and only the third time ever.

If that’s achieved, then — injuries permitting — the European tour at the end of the year can be approached as some kind of triumphal procession, for there is no northern hemisphere team that can live with this Springbok team at its best. Right now the biggest arguments centre around how to get Burger back into the mix, and whether the flyhalf should be a points machine or a gifted runner.

When you remember some of the lows of the recent past it is worth celebrating the present, or as the Roman poet Horace put it: ”Haec est vita” — this is the life.

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