In our new summer series, we’ll be taking a look at how each of the major rugby nations are shaping up with just over a year to go before Rugby World Cup 2015. This week, Hugh Podmore analyses the health of two-time winners South Africa…
The Springboks trounced Scotland last weekend to round off the Castle Lager Incoming Series on a high note. The scoreboard for the rest of the mini-series, which will show two wins over Wales, give the impression of a ruddy, confident South Africa squad. But how are they really set before the Rugby Championship? And how well are they building towards the halcyon dream of a third Rugby World Cup title in 2015?
There are many in South Africa who feel unbridled optimism for the upcoming tournaments. Coach Heyneke Meyer seems to have cut through a lot of the unjustified egotism of some players and engendered a culture of team spirit on one hand and continuity and consistency on the other. He doesn’t like to drop players and through his obvious passion (or purple-faced coach’s box frenzy) for the game, for the team, and for the shirt, seems to lead by example.
Then you get on to the players. The forwards seem almost sorted and outstanding performances from fresh-faced debutantes like Lood de Jager give rise to a feeling of an embarrassment of riches for Meyer to pick from, especially when you compare forwards on the bench to some other top flight teams. For Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis read Coenie Oosthuizen and Adrian Strauss. At lineout time Victor Matfield is doing as redoubtable a job as he has ever done, and in the loose Marcel Coetzee, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts would surely be contenders for a world XV.
But it’s the backs, as ever, that are the stars. Fourie du Preez at scrum half is fleet of foot, precise of box kick and swift of distribution. At 15 Willie le Roux is one of the most dangerous attacking runners in the world and has now coupled his incisive penetration with some resilience under the high ball. Again, there’s strength in depth – at fly half Handre Pollard made another solid debut yesterday and when fit, Morne Steyn, Johan Goosen, Patrick Lambie or even Ruan Pienaar can play there. Jan Serfontein is looking like a world-class centre and injury shouldn’t make us forget Jaque Fourie, captain Jean de Villiers, JJ Engelbrecht. On the wing, too, a happy blend of promising youth and legendary experience – Lwazi Mvovo, Cornal Hendricks on the one hand and JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana on the other.
So all good then? Nicking a couple of tight ones against the All Blacks this winter and then thrashing all comers til RWC? Not so, the naysayers would have it. Their oft-quoted central complaint is that when the team is overwhelmed by a decent attacking force, such as the All Blacks or Wales in Nelspruit a week ago, Meyer has inculcated a tendency to regress to an outdated and predictable Bulls-esque pick-and-drive model. It doesn’t look like he has many ideas when the going gets tough, in other words.
Then there’s the team selection. Many fans don’t really understand the forward planning element of having players like Bakkies Botha or Schalk Burger in the team who may well be legends but arguably do barely enough to justify their selection now. Similarly, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez had wonderful games yesterday, but perhaps more work needs to be done blooding the youngsters and getting them used to playing together for the Boks. As hard as it may be to accept, is it time to let the old guys go?
There are more ructions the deeper you delve into the team. Bismarck doesn’t play well without his brother there, but his brother doesn’t play well full stop. Francois Hougaard doesn’t have the spark of du Preez at 9, and at 10, all those contenders mentioned above have their quite significant failings (Morne can kick but literally can do nothing else; Lambie is too slight; Goosen is injury-prone; Pienaar is more of a utility scrum-half). In the centre we are so injury-weakened that we had to play JP Pietersen there yesterday, and he looked more out of place than did Manu Tuilagi when he was played inversely by the English.
The domestic situation is no bed of roses either. The South African conference of the Super Rugby competition is an embarrassment, with only the Sharks making a decent attempt to represent the country. Of the bottom five teams in the combined log, only two are not South African. The Cheetahs, from whom many of the players we’ve talked of in glowing terms come, are bottom. Rock bottom.
Meanwhile, back at national level, Francois Steyn is the elephant in the room. What exactly has been the dispute no one really knows, but it’s a terrible shame that a player of that calibre feels as though he must absent himself from the national cause. There seems to be a lot of murk at boardroom level, with major issues such as the imperative of transformation (making the team less white and Afrikaner) hovering in the background, threatening to destabilise.
So overall, what would we say? What prospects do the Saffas actually have? I think the Springboks are like an Alfa Romeo at the moment – beautiful to look at, lovely to be associated with, and envy-inducing as you go round with it. But when you run the bugger for a couple of years it breaks down very often. There are a huge number of issues in the squad and around the squad, but there is so much talent that we really should be beating everyone apart from the All Blacks. And that’s a pity, because that should read ‘including the All Blacks’.