Rob Houwing

Too late for Boks to change

2010-12-08 08:50
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing

I think we can say it is official: the Springboks will stick to “what they are good at” (or read: what the vast majority of their influential, core players are most comfortable with) when they attempt to become the first side to retain the World Cup in 2011.

Will next year herald the start of a sudden, bold new commitment to expansive rugby by the Boks? Please, you’d better try to sell me something else from the suitcase!

Don’t get me wrong, whether they hold onto the Webb Ellis Cup in New Zealand or not, I believe South Africa will be gently coaxed toward a more expansive philosophy in the aftermath.

By that stage their personnel, both playing component and management, will probably be subject to wholesale change anyway, and all the fresh possibilities that situation will entail.

But before that? No way. With so many of their successful class of 2007 still calling the shots to a strong degree in 2011, expect wholly normal service (direct, no-frills, permissibly “violent” rugby, if you like).

The only way the Boks are going to abandon their existing template in favour of a new way is if Peter de Villiers gets the chop ahead of the next international season – increasingly unlikely now, it seems – and a true “run it, run it, run it” romantic like Basil Bey is appointed in his place.

Which, of course, won’t happen.

Incumbent De Villiers has already, stubbornly and confidently, set out his stall for 2011, with such post-Euro tour comments as “we showed that when we properly execute our game-plan we make it very hard for the opposition” and “we have South African strengths and we will play to them”.

For someone whose appointment was initially touted as offering more enterprising principles to predecessor Jake White and others, the coach is instead sounding more and more resolutely in favour of the long-standing status quo. And his senior players, as mentioned, will not be offering one peep of objection.

Yes, the Boks are going to stick to their belief that World Cups are won on pragmatism ahead of prettiness, and possibly offer up the not-threadbare back-up stat that they have won 50 percent of the RWCs they’ve played in – a better strike rate than anyone.

We must also bear in mind that on this particular northern expedition, for all its ongoing blemishes, South Africa actually cranked up a notch certain aspects of their forwards-orientated approach.

They unleashed a big, ball-carrying “supersub” in Willem Alberts, to only add to their convincing repertoire in the physicality department, while their scrumming was light years better than it had been on the chaotic 2009 end-of-year pilgrimage.

Interestingly, after the Boks basically battered England into submission recently, Shaun Edwards, defensive tutor to Wales and a former rugby league legend, felt moved to write in his regular spot in The Guardian: “If the World Cup started tomorrow ... South Africa would be the only side I would wager anything on to beat the All Blacks.

“Even after one of their poorest Tri-Nations performances on record and with a good side in the sick bay, they are clearly second best in the world right now and will only get better once they have rested and reflected.”

Ironically, too, there is even a nervous constituency in New Zealand who wonder whether the All Blacks, for all their awesome sparkle and fluidity at present, are actually too enterprising for their own good and may need to step off the pedal a tad to factor in the different demands of a World Cup, their long-time bogey.

Whatever the weird, opposite angst in the Land of the Long White Cloud, I think most of us would love to see the Boks be both more willing and able to “mix up” their game to a greater degree: that is probably going to come anyway once gifted characters like Fourie du Preez, Juan de Jongh, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana rejoin the mix next year.

Du Preez is especially important, let’s not forget, as an attacking device, with his uncanny awareness of situations, his sniping around the fringes, and his strong and long passing.

But a conscious, widespread shift in Bok mindset hardly seems in the offing, by my estimation -- and there is a case for suggesting that it is too late to tinker with things too radically anyway.

There is only a compressed Tri-Nations campaign to come for the Springboks ahead of the World Cup now – no Italy, Canada or Tonga against whom to brave any growing pains a new direction would surely include.

Conservatism tends to do the trick at World Cups, but between these events every four years the Boks have tended to lose the plot rather spectacularly at times, allowing the All Blacks, especially, to carry rugby football to brave and crowd-pleasing new heights and return to No 1 on the rankings with annoying rapidity.

The time for meaningful change, you would think, is immediately after a World Cup, not in the months or mere weeks ahead of one.

No, any opportunity for a seismic shift has probably gone: South African bluntness and “simplicity” will only be reinforced in the lead-up period to RWC 2011, not dismantled.

Beat me with a big stick if I am proved notably wrong ...

Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.


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