Halfway through the tour, with a couple of hard fought and meritorious victories behind them, any chance that the Springboks might be able to concentrate on closing out a Grand Slam ended in the early hours of Monday morning. Later the same day Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson were forced to take the walk of shame to Heathrow.
In the history of international doping control no one has ever lifted their arms in the air and announced: “It’s a fair cop.” Furthermore, it seemed so bizarrely unlikely that two players could be taking things that the rest of the squad were not, that the team doctor was instructed to test everything ingestible in the tourists’ effects.
The natural conclusion to be drawn from this is that if Basson and Ralepelle are guilty then so is the rest of the squad.
It seemed a little naive, then, for coach Peter de Villiers to go blithely ahead with his announcement on Tuesday lunchtime of the team to play Scotland this week. So it proved, for within hours of the media conference Bryan Habana was forced to leave the tour with a hand injury sustained in training.
This piece of news comes under the heading of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” because too much information came with it. Instead of saying Habana was injured, the press release specified that he “suffered the injury during a defensive drill when he fell awkwardly on his hand after tackling Morné Steyn”.
Conspiracy theorists might conclude that Habana was being rushed home before someone from outside the touring party could stick a needle into him. The rest of us might prefer to believe what we are told and that Habana really did injure himself and Basson and Ralepelle are the unwitting victims of a flu remedy administered by Craig Roberts, the team doctor.
The fact of the matter is that methylhexaneamine has surfaced on at least 20 high-profile occasions in sport this year, which is why, from January 1, it will become a specified stimulant. It has been on the prohibited list of the World Anti-Doping Agency since 2009.
The reaction of the tourists’ management to the positive tests on Basson and Ralepelle might require that all the remaining squad members undergo a test this week. And even if that were not to be the case, some tricky questions might be asked. For instance, two players were tested after the Ireland Test, but none after the Wales Test. Why not?
In an ideal world the tourists could ignore the implications and concentrate on rugby matters. Indeed, De Villers attempted to do just that when he announced the team, saying: “We have moved on, we’re professional, we know how to deal with tough moments and we look forward to playing the game on Saturday.” Nobody believed him, least of all the man himself.
After the gripping conclusion to Saturday’s Test against Wales, the tourists were hoping for a relaxing run out against a Scotland team that lost 49-3 against New Zealand the same day. Off-field matters will ensure that it is anything but relaxing — and recent results suggest that the Scots play a brand of rugby calculated to stop South African teams from firing on all cylinders.
When the two sides last met in 2008 the Boks scraped through 14-10, scoring all their points in the second half after turning around 10-0 down. The worrying aspect of that game was that Graham Henry had put out a second string All Black team a week earlier and thumped the Scots by 30 points. So there is no room for complacency with a Grand Slam still up for grabs.
De Villiers had made five changes at the time of writing, but chose to retain Morne Steyn at flyhalf. Rumour has it that he is saving Patrick Lambie for Twickenham next week, while the gifted Lions pivot Elton Jantjies will get a game against the Barbarians in the final match of the tour.
Two Sharks who have been in thrilling form add vitality to the side. Lwazi Mvovo is a powerful and swift runner entirely deserving of a first cap. Ryan Kankowski has been pigeonholed as a southern hemisphere specialist, all at sea in tight games on soft grounds. This is his chance to disprove the theory and step up a level.
Most importantly of all, De Villiers has recalled Francois Hougaard to the starting XV. Quite how he was ever dropped in the first place is puzzling, but now that he is back, expect a new urgency to proceedings at the base of the scrum. His presence may bring out the best in flanker Deon Stegmann who has been largely anonymous in his first two Tests.
If all goes according to plan, the Boks will record a comfortable victory against a limited Scottish side. That will set things up perfectly for the Grand Slam decider against an England team that looked desperately short of ideas against New Zealand, but found something against Australia last week.
Always assuming, of course, that a few more positive results from the laboratory don’t scupper the fixture.