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11 Sep 2009 09:05
Saturday will mark a defining moment in the Springbok class of 2009. It will be the team’s final Test of the southern hemisphere season and therefore the last Test (for a while at least) for Jean de Villiers and Frans Steyn.
Whether the pair head to their new teams in Europe as conquering heroes or a pair of nearly men depends on what happens against the All Blacks in Hamilton.
The aura of impregnability built up by the Springboks this season was dented by their non-performance against Australia in Brisbane.
The last of those questions is germane. Bucking tradition, the squad opted to stay on at their salubrious quarters in Australia’s Gold Coast until Thursday this week, thereby minimising the time they would have to spend in New Zealand before the game. When the venues for extramural activities become an issue, you can be sure that several eyes have been taken off the rugby ball.
There was a time when South African teams couldn’t wait to get to New Zealand, the only country in the world (with the possible exception of Wales) where Rugby Union is the most popular sport. Familiarity breeds contempt though, and one of the most experienced Springbok teams of all time has voted to stay on the beach.
As for the bench, it has become an issue because all year the Boks have battled in the final 20 minutes when coach Peter de Villiers has chosen to exercise his options. In Brisbane the score was still 9-6 when the final quarter began, but at the end of the match it was 21-6. In Perth a week earlier it was 32-13 after 67 minutes, but it finished 32-25. Similar collapses have been commonplace, suggesting either that the players on the bench aren’t up to it, or that they are being used in the wrong way and at the wrong times.
The Wallabies dominated the Bok scrum in Brisbane and this might have been the week to put five forwards on the bench instead of the usual four. De Villiers has this option because the three back replacements feature two scrumhalves, Ruan Pienaar and Ricky Januarie. The international season began with the coach defending Januarie—and he has stuck by his man once more.
The criticism recently aimed at the Bok front row ignores one thing: fatigue. John Smit cannot be faulted for the way in which he has made the transition from hooker to tighthead prop, but the miles are beginning to catch up with him. Equally, Tendai Mtawarira is not the force of nature he was when the international season began in June. But rather than knock down the carefully assembled edifice, the coaching team hopes that the string and sealing wax will hold together for one more week.
To that end, there has been a tactical shift back to the successful method employed in the home Tests for the Tri-Nations. The return to fullback of Frans Steyn is a clear riposte to Graham Henry’s decision to play two flyhalves in the All Black midfield, Dan Carter and Stephen Donald.
In New Zealand there is less of a distinction between the roles of flyhalf and inside centre. That’s part of the reason they call the positions first and second five eighth. Clearly the pair will swap positions depending on circumstance, with Carter favouring the left foot and Donald the right. Steyn’s role will be to punish imprecise kicks either by carrying the ball back to the safety of the forwards or by smashing it back 60m with his trusty right boot.
It seems we can expect another Test match filled with aerial ping-pong, the spoils going to the team that chases kicks the best. It goes without saying that this will not please the purists.
When William Webb Ellis first showed his fine disregard for the rules of soccer he picked up the ball and ran with it. He did not then stop, think about the consequences of what he had done and apply the boot.
When the International Rugby Board (IRB) next meets, the state of the game must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Right now it is being played by teams who don’t want the ball. They would rather kick it to the opposition, hope for a pressure-induced error and score from the subsequent turnover.
This vapid method is the result of teams not needing to commit numbers to the breakdown. Rugby League-style defensive lines are stretched across the field and the only way to avoid them is to kick. When this Tri-Nations trophy is safely in the South African Rugby Union’s cabinet, its officials must agitate for change before the football and rugby world cups become indistinguishable.
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