Bok 'corpse' has strong pulse
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – So what will the doomsayers make of this, then?
Let us not be guilty of suggesting all is suddenly hunky-dory again in Springbok rugby: it isn’t. But there are also times when the pessimists must be banished, humiliated, to the back seats for a while and a special weekend – “finish and klaar!” -- be savoured by those who doggedly keep the faith.
Considering the swirling cloud of negativity after the Scotland debacle only seven days earlier, and the general mood of public disenchantment with both the touring Bok team and their head coach of late, beating England by an emphatic 10 points at Twickenham on Saturday was a riposte of some force.
Personally, I am wallowing unashamedly in a wee measure of self-satisfaction after daring to suggest from the British Isles in midweek that Victor Matfield’s team had no reason to feel cowed by the England challenge and that, pound for pound, a win or at least rousing visiting performance was wholly feasible.
Well, this Bok team produced both. And perhaps now those who scornfully thought I was smoking my 3G card or even the entire laptop may at least put their noses to the hot humble pie even if they are not prepared to brave a bite.
I suggested it was frighteningly close to disloyal to wish the Boks a hiding against such long-time bitter rivals simply because of a clearly well-rooted wish to see Peter de Villiers given the heave-ho.
Surely support for your team should always come first? Surely you appreciate a bit more now that any distaste you may have for the coach and his co-strategists is best channelled toward those who employ them, and not the men who actually go out to defend the country’s honour in the green and gold?
I do not harbour affection for De Villiers: I still believe he is skating on thin ice after a rocky old year, and that there are better brains capable of plotting the Boks’ World Cup defence, even if upheaval at this point would contain some obvious elements of disadvantage.
But in the (unlikely now, perhaps) event that the coach does see the door, he would leave with the minor satisfaction, I think, that he still had “the dressing room”, as they say.
For if there was significant anti-Div rebelliousness in the camp itself, it certainly didn’t surface on Saturday as Matfield and company saved their most full-blooded and polished performance of the Grand Slam tour for last.
Three wins from four on an end-of-year slog with a greatly weakened squad: that’s not nirvana, but it’s also not a ruinous state of affairs and South Africa have had coaches who have kept their tracksuits after worse tour returns.
But let’s abandon the bigger picture now, because sideshows deserve suspension – even if short-lived -- when a terrific win like this is achieved, don’t you think?
Yes, this wasn’t too far off a Bok hall-of-famer, when you consider how they were being written off after the Murrayfield mud-bath and England, simultaneously, were being hyped – outrageously, I’d strongly suspected – on the grounds of the 35-18 whipping of the Wallabies at the very same venue.
Martin Johnson’s charges had won some plaudits a little earlier in the month, too, when they at least gave the All Blacks some “problems” along the way in succumbing 26-16.
Well, here the Boks prevailed by the same margin, yet arguably with greater comfort: remember that England’s lone try was a late, flattering intercept and that both Steyns, Morne and Francois, had thumped the uprights with much earlier penalty attempts within the space of seven minutes.
Both even-handed English television commentators, Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes (what a relief not to have had that barking anti-Saffer Brian Moore in the booth) were unreserved in their praise for the whip hand South Africa held, virtually across the park.
“South Africa look the more experienced and better team,” Harrison had simply but aptly noted as the teams trudged off at half-time, with England somehow level-pegging then at 6-6.
And afterwards former Test flyhalf Barnes, while also suggesting the Boks suddenly didn’t look so dead in the water as a World Cup 2011 factor after all, observed: “This was their shot at redemption (after Scotland) and boy, have they fired the bullets.”
He gave player-of-the-match to Bismarck du Plessis, the hooker who threw into the lineout beautifully after his bad day at the office in Edinburgh and rampaged about the pitch like a man possessed in the general exchanges.
Mind you, there were many colleagues like him in muscular commitment and positive energy.
One was Pierre Spies, the big No 8 who has rather pole-axed some detractors in recent weeks, this one included.
Yes, he did bungle one routine, no-pressure kick-off collection, but otherwise the Bulls man was dynamite at Twickers.
On one sublime occasion he not only stopped a rumbling English attacker near the Bok line, he drove him several yards backwards – it is moments like that that demoralise opponents and gee-up allies.
Beast Mtawarira, meanwhile, tackled and made metres, tackled and made metres ... you get the picture of the loosehead prop’s levels of industry. Oh, and before we forget, he was also part of a jubilantly successful effort to lower the colours of a supposedly immovable English scrum!
All the while, veteran blindside flank Juan Smith took alertness to new levels, making rangy strides at times to smash unsuspecting English raiders and counter-raiders into touch – the Bok old-firm locks weren’t too shabby in that respect, either.
Where they had come up short against the Scots for precision, the tactical kicking and body language of Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn was light years better here, while Jean de Villiers simply oozed zeal and tenacity and a desire to stay on the front foot.
The substitutions, so often an area of wrath by Bok monitors, were like clockwork this time: the right men came off with understandably wearying legs during the second half, and bench performers like Willem Alberts, CJ van der Linde (save for that ill-fated but ultimately not too expensive “prop’s pass”) and Adi Jacobs busied themselves with commendable immediacy.
“We played the way we know we can,” a bursting-with-pride Matfield said pitch-side afterwards, “direct ... and then we took it wide.”
Yeah, the various, still complex elements of controversy and disenchantment in Bok rugby can wait a few days.
Roll out the barrel, I say ...