Hail to thee, my countrymen

Richie McCaw: Not saying goodbye just yet. (AFP)

Richie McCaw: Not saying goodbye just yet. (AFP)

It is unlikely that anyone involved in last Saturday’s Test match in Pretoria will ever experience worse conditions in which to play a game of rugby football. It is patently unfair to criticise any of the players, because the weather turned the contest into a lottery. And yet certain players rose to the challenge, whereas others were found wanting.

When he first came into the Springbok side, Willie le Roux was criticised for being a one-trick pony; fine going forward, but a liability on the back foot. But in the driving hail of Loftus he rose high into the air, time after time, to catch the ball and nullify the threat. He was also the one player who never stopped trying to rise above the conditions.

Le Roux’s performance brought to mind that of a left-footed fullback from an earlier generation. The match was South Africa against France; the venue was Kings Park and the occasion was the semifinal of the 1995 World Cup. The player in question was André Joubert, and his courage under fire was even more remarkable, because he was playing with a broken arm.

Le Roux will need to maintain his form for a few seasons for a fair comparison to be made with the Rolls Royce, but against Argentina he proved that he can play in the wet, and that is something that may prove vital when the World Cup visits Britain next year.

Another important performance came from scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, who, in addition to scoring the try that proved to be the difference between the sides, also had his best game for several seasons at international level.

Collective sigh of relief
By contrast the occasion seemed to unhinge young Handré Pollard. His kicking game fell to pieces and he was shown up by his opposite number, the diminutive Nicolas Sanchez. If the hail had come half an hour earlier it is possible that coach Heyneke Meyer might have started with Morné Steyn. As it was, there was a collective sigh of relief when the former Bull ran on with 20 minutes to go.

The main area of concern for the Boks, however, was in the set pieces. Their scrum was 50kg heavier than the Pumas, but that was nullified by poor technique. The locks, in particular, were guilty of engaging with their hips higher than their shoulders, while Tendai Mtawarira’s reputation took a severe knock. The line-outs were poor, no matter which hooker was feeding them, and the injury-enforced absence of Victor Matfield left a gaping hole. That the national side should be so reliant on a 38-year-old is a major concern.

It came as no surprise that both Mtawarira and Bakkies Botha were benched for this week’s Test in Salta, although few were expecting Juan Smith to start his first game for the Boks since they played England at Twickenham in 2010. As a horses for courses selection it has the right feel and, who knows, it could be the start of one of the great comebacks in sporting history.

In fact, despite some tinkering from the coach, the Springboks have a good deal less to worry about than the All Blacks and Wallabies. In conditions far less extreme than those of Pretoria, the trans-Tasman rivals fought out a lacklustre 12-12 draw in Sydney.

The hype around Kurtley Beale at flyhalf turned out to be just that. Beale never seemed to take the ball on the front foot, threw passes willy-nilly in an attempt to avoid confrontation, and missed the easy penalty at the end of the first half that might have earned his side a win.

Unbridled success
For their part, the mighty All Blacks were cowed by history, finding the record-breaking 18th successive win as elusive as their predecessors. There have been plenty of critics pointing to the fact that New Zealand have lost one and drawn two since the beginning of the 2011 World Cup. In any circumstances that is remarkable, but it might be that such unbridled success has blinded coach Steve Hansen to the fact that his team needs an overhaul.

Keven Mealamu has been a great player, but it is hard to believe at the age of 35 that he is still one of the top two hookers in New Zealand. When he took the field for the final quarter on Saturday his first line-out throw was so crooked it almost missed his scrumhalf.

As for the captain of the side, Richie McCaw will be 34 on New Year’s Eve and it is plain to see that one of the greatest flankers ever to play the game is losing his battle with anno Domini.

At his best, McCaw had the ability to get under the skin of opponents away from the prying eyes of the referee. In Sydney, however, Jaco Peyper had his number. There is a T-shirt that says, “I don’t have a drinking problem. I only drink when Richie McCaw is offside.” The wearers of that merchandise must have been legless by the end of the first Bledisloe Cup match.

Word has it that McCaw remains at the helm because of the dearth of alternatives either on the side of the scrum or as captain. There is some irony in the idea that Meyer could lose Matfield and soldier on, but Hansen, rightly or wrongly, believes New Zealand cannot retain the World Cup without McCaw at the helm.

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