Boks should be more cohesive
It may yet prove to be an irrational thought, but I have a strangely buoyant feeling about South Africa’s prospects on their Grand Slam quest in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
And this despite the Springboks, of course, having what might best be described as a “chequered” record on their end-of-year tours in recent times, marked by some ropey performances against France and Ireland, in particular, although they will not encounter the French on this occasion.
Nobody needs reminding of their dismal Tri-Nations showing this year, while the last European venture, in 2009, hardly went according to plan either: the Boks only managed a one-from-three win record in the Tests (lone success against modest Italy in Udine) while a rare “dirt-tracker” combo succumbed rather humiliatingly to both Leicester Tigers and Saracens.
Somehow that whole tour seemed a bit of a shambles logistically, with 42 players travelling, some only to the pair of lower-key assignments while others focussed on the Tests, and then there was some emergency overlapping, if you like, because of injuries and selection about-turns.
Some of the players picked, too, were either too wet behind the ears for the different demands of the northern hemisphere in winter or failed to translate the domestic form that had earned them the nod into prowess in green and gold: names like Heinke van der Merwe, Earl Rose, Heini Adams, Davon Raubenheimer, Alistair Hargreaves and Wian du Preez come to mind to varying degrees.
There were also some desperately naïve selections in the key area of the engine room, with the Bok brains trust deciding with an eccentric click of the fingers that Lions specialist loosehead Van der Merwe (now plying his trade with Leinster) might suddenly convert into a successful tighthead in the most imposing, heavy-pitch scrummaging environment of them all.
Someone like Sharks then-stringbean Hargreaves, too, arguably did not yet boast enough solid first-class experience in the second row at the time and it generally showed – although I would suggest he is an altogether more influential, meatier individual in 2010 and may deserve the squad nod much more this time.
But if the extended Bok “training group” for this year’s challenge on the other side of the equator is any yardstick, Saturday evening’s tour party may be crucially more suited to European climes, at least as far as the pack is concerned.
The provisional inclusion of the likes of Willem Alberts, Dean Greyling, Coenie Oosthuizen and Duane Vermeulen suggests that certain lessons have been learnt and that rugged, hefty ball-carriers and yeoman grafters will be the wiser order of the day. (Of course the jury remains out on the set-scrum skills at this stage of front-rankers Greyling and Oosthuizen.)
There are still, of course, other important ducks to get in a row, like determining exactly which players will be employed first-up against Ireland the Saturday after next.
Do you field players from the presumably dispirited losing side after this weekend’s Currie Cup final? Do you field players who took part in this showpiece at all?
More importantly, perhaps, is there enough clout among non-Sharks/WP Boks to be able to finally down Ireland in their own lair?
I believe this is a massive head-scratcher: the Irish, after all, possibly represent the toughest obstacle of the quartet and if the Boks fritter away any Grand Slam prospect at the opening hurdle, it could yet turn into the proverbial long tour for them.
But if South Africa triumph in Dublin then the Slam seems very much “on”.
Keep in mind that the Boks have already turned over Wales in Cardiff once in mid-year, with a slightly cobbled-together team a week after the Super 14 final, Scotland should be beatable while the last Twickenham game against England (2008) saw a crushing 42-6 win for South Africa.
Sure, the Boks will tour minus influential figures like John Smit, Heinrich Brussow, Jaque Fourie and Fourie du Preez, but there still ought to be enough class on paper to end the international season markedly better than it began.
A bit of luck and iron discipline will do the cause no harm, of course, while the broad level of desire to restore Springbok pride after the misery of the Tri-Nations will be a key determinant as well.
Oh yes, and Peter de Villiers refraining from wacky or tetchy comments before the super-vigilant UK press will keep the ship suitably stable too.
I am still not at all wild about someone like Victor Matfield touring (and of course captaining), “refreshed” or not after his little hiatus: the availability of his strengths and nous in the short-term could yet be negated by fatigue in the veteran’s case come the World Cup.
Still, my money’s on at least a “good” Euro tour if South Africa get things right strategically this time …
Rob is Sport24's chief writer
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