If the history books are a valid guide to the future, Australia cannot win in Pretoria on Saturday. In six goes they have yet to register victory at Loftus Versfeld, and that run includes the famous 61-22 drubbing in 1997 that began the Springboks’ equally famous 17-match unbeaten run.
The best chance for the Wallabies came in 1963, when they met in the first Bok Test of the season and were inspired by the great scrumhalf Ken Catchpole.
But the Boks scored tries through Tommy Bedford and Gert Cilliers and some immaculate kicking from Keith Oxlee ensured a 14-3 home win. Without the Loftus talisman, the Boks lost the next two Tests of the series at Newlands and Ellis Park.
Thirty-four years elapsed before the two sides met again at Loftus and it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Carel du Plessis had been rushed into the hot seat of Bok coach after a tape recording of a private meeting between Andre Markgraaff and Andre Bester revealed racial slurs. Du Plessis presided over a series loss to the British and Irish Lions and heavy defeats away from home to New Zealand and Australia.
The Loftus Test was his eighth and last, and debate still rages over how much credit Du Plessis should receive for the unbeaten run presided over by his successor, Nick Mallett. Before the game, both players and the coach knew the axe was about to fall and some claim that Du Plessis simply told his team to “go out there and express yourselves”.
There was much more to it than that, of course, with much stemming from the fleet-footed flank pairing of Rassie Erasmus and Warren Brosnihan, who took over from the far more staid approach of André Venter and Ruben Kruger.
It was also the 34th and last Test for the great fullback, André Joubert, who was responsible for the most outrageous moment of the whole game.
Picking up a ball that had rolled into touch in his own 22, Joubert hurled a 20m gridiron pass
to Percy Montgomery. The move ended with a spectacular try and
it seemed that Joubert’s career was about to enter an Indian summer.
Alas, it was not to be. Mallett could find no room for the Rolls Royce in his end-of-year touring squad, citing defensive frailties when grilled by an increasingly exasperated media.
And so we come to the present day and the same dichotomy. Bok coach Allister Coetzee discarded Willie le Roux after the disappointment of the Ireland series. At his best, two seasons ago, Le Roux evoked comparisons with Joubert. But a suspect defence and crossfield running could not justify the rare moments of genius and he had to go. Now that a manufactured crisis has arrived, Le Roux is back. Go figure.
Similarly, the career of Elton Jantjies has been sent back to the drawing board. Exposure to forensic video analysis that comes with representing your country has revealed a timidity at the heart of Jantjies’s game.
From the Super Rugby final onwards, teams have targeted the space around and through the flyhalf channel. Without concomitant strategising to counter it, Springbok teams have been exposed and beaten.
Ironically, the time to give Jantjies his head is on a firm field on the Highveld against a below-average Australian side. He could produce the kind of virtuoso display that would silence the critics and send confidence coursing through the veins of a very confused young man. Unfortunately he used up his coach’s patience one Test too soon.
The history of the game is studded with these moments. A coach is forced to make decisions in the here and now, many of which make perfect sense until viewed with 20/20 hindsight.
In 2001, for instance, Harry Viljoen decided it was a good idea to replace André Vos as captain with Bob Skinstad. But, rather than announce it himself, the Springbok coach persuaded Vos to do so at a press conference in Port Elizabeth.
The fall-out from this gross display of weak management would have serious long-term consequences, culminating two years later in the dark days of Kamp Staaldraad, by which time Viljoen was long gone.
He was at the helm a month later, however, when on July 28 2001 the Springboks beat the Wallabies 20-15 at Loftus.
The constant theme of Viljoen’s days at the helm was the need to play a more expansive game. He tried and failed to get Montgomery to play at flyhalf, and with disastrous consequences entrusted the goal kicking to the Western Province fullback.
In the days before Montgomery got a crash course in kicking and responsibility as an overseas professional in Wales, his methods were far from robust. The nadir came against the All Blacks at Newlands the week before the Loftus Test. In filthy weather, Montgomery sprayed kicks all over the park and New Zealand won 12-3.
The desperate need for a goal kicker rekindled the career of Braam van Straaten, and the Western Province centre-cum-flyhalf won the Loftus Test with five penalties from his sturdy right boot. When asked afterwards about the pressure of kicking in a Test match, he laughed. “It’s my job,” he said.
There are a few misfiring Springboks who might take Van Straaten’s matter-of-fact approach to heart. As hard as playing for your country may sometimes appear, it’s a damn sight better than working for a living.