Boks have boxed stupid
Young Francois Louw is a very unlucky Springbok this week, having been discarded both from the run-on XV and broader match 22 for the Vodacom Tri-Nations Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
In a much-altered Boks squad for the must-win assignment if they are to retain a flicker of title-retention hope, he is the most spectacular of the sacrifices, some of them necessitated by injuries or suspensions.
And yes, perhaps it is a damaging setback for a 25-year-old who certainly lifted his personal game against the All Blacks at Wellington after a rough old baptism against these “special” foes in Auckland a week earlier.
I have partial sympathy with the extreme step taken, though not for reasons you might expect: I feel he is a classic case of a South African player – make that another South African player – having been worked to a standstill this season, poorly managed from a game-overload point of view at both Super 14 and international level and not able to deliver his best of late, however willing his mind may have been.
And when you go into a Test against New Zealand officially knackered – I use the term “official” because I fancy sports scientists would heartily back that branding even if there is denial elsewhere – you are going to battle to give 100 percent.
Louw played right through a taxing Super 14 campaign (semi and final as part of his roster for the first time, of course) with frighteningly fewer rest opportunities than most Stormers players, before being thrust into international rugby as a debutant against Wales after a long-haul flight the very Saturday following the Soweto final against the Bulls.
He has remained deeply involved with the Boks ever since – mostly because of the “crime” of making such a good impression ahead of the Antipodean trip -- and like it or not a dip had to come, despite the irony of his relative bounce-back showing at the Westpac Stadium.
The Boks have one more hurdle to leap on this unexpectedly traumatic tour before they go into a merciful mid-tourney hiatus of a few weeks. From that “breather”, I tip them to emerge strikingly resurgent on home soil for the three remaining Tri-Nations obligations: they usually do when the overseas leg has gone badly!
Falling as much into this category, I’m sure, will be Francois Louw, although he now has the job of clawing his way back to favour.
And I sense it may happen, as an imbalanced, “two No8s” policy in Brisbane featuring both Messrs Spies and Kankowski, with the latter rather dazzlingly out of position as a blindsider, is destined to failure either on Saturday or not too much further down the drag.
But my broad point is that Louw has fallen victim to crossover mismanagement between his franchise and the Boks.
And if you have a youngish set of legs looking inevitably jaded at this juncture, how can you expect vintage form (and we’re not getting it right now) from more crusty and similarly-burdened campaigners like Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, Victor Matfield and John Smit?
It is some of the more veteran Boks who particularly require a degree of cotton-wool treatment, you would think, in the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, but we are just not seeing tangible signs of it yet.
Observant neutrals have picked up on the matter. “This South African team looks tired to me,” former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick noted a few days ago, mentioning specifically some of the players I have named here.
I can hear cynics protesting: “So why don’t New Zealand’s top players look as jaded?”
Well, the reason is that at Super 14 level key All Blacks have tended traditionally to be fielded more judiciously, with the benefit of an individual “week off” here and there or notably early calling to the dugout when a game is made safe long before the final whistle – as tends to occur too commonly against weaker South African franchises like the Lions and Cheetahs, admittedly.
Even Matfield, that fine, well-conditioned athlete and ace lineout dissector, appears to have succumbed to some manner of mental fatigue to accompany physical weariness recently – how short-sighted, I staunchly maintain, that the 33-year-old also turned out against Wales a week after hoisting the Super 14 trophy.
Habana, normally so electric a presence on the Test and first-class field, has also surrendered rather more sharpness than he or Bok enthusiasts would like on this trip and he, too, ought to come back smoking when South Africa open the second phase of their Tri-Nations campaign against the All Blacks at Soweto on August 21. (Though this Saturday would be a welcome bonus …)
As for the increasingly under-scrutiny Bok skipper Smit, there will be no harm at all in a spot of out-of-competition conditioning opportunity once Brisbane is out of the way.
The shedding of five kilograms or so, for his now apparently permanent return to the hooker’s berth, might be just what the doctor ordered as mobility, to be blunt, has not been his best friend in recent Tests.
In a nutshell, it may still be a tad premature to start pointing exit fingers at certain, perceived Springbok “has-beens”.
I’m more inclined to spare such thoughts for after the home leg. If the Boks continue to look off the pace in those three outings, that is the time to truly start worrying about their senior citizens’ World Cup credentials.
Oh, plus I firmly believe we have not heard the last of a fresher-faced investment, one Francois Louw …
Rob is Sport24's chief writer
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