Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Forgive Boks a bungling day!
Cape Town – If South African rugby was in the midst of a dark era, we might have looked at their jaundiced showing against Italy in Witbank on Saturday and shaken our heads in further despondency.
But it isn’t, and that has to be kept firmly in mind.
You cannot summarily say a team that trounced Six Nations champions France so stirringly only a week earlier has suddenly gone off terminally like a hidden, half-finished can of pilchards at the back of the fridge.
Indeed, with significant changes made for the first Test against Sergio Parisse’s gutsy but essentially limited outfit, the home XVs could not really be accurately compared from one weekend to the other anyway.
No question: this was a dog’s breakfast of a Springbok showing and in the second half you might even argue that it attracted flies, into the bargain, as raggedness and imprecision infected the ranks with growing vigour.
But I, for one, am disinclined to put the boot in. Not yet, anyway – we are entitled to expect an altogether more vibrant and cohesive Bok showing in the East London follow-up next week.
Or, as acting captain Victor Matfield put it afterwards at the Puma Stadium: “We must just get the top three inches right.”
Yes, it was sobering that the Italians, in only losing by 16 points which means coach Nick Mallett must surrender all his hair courtesy of an in-house challenge, actually dominated possession overall and forced the world champions into making more tackles.
But, even at the risk of this sounding disrespectful to the northern hemisphere minnows, it was impossible not to deduce that some involuntary complacency and lethargy crept into the broad Bok mindset for this one.
This is, after all, one of those “obligation” mini-series sandwiched unpleasantly between the Super 14 and Tri-Nations when preservation slightly eclipses urgency, no doubt, in the thinking of some seasoned South African players.
And speaking of the Super 14, I cannot and will not put to pasture my theory that far too many Bulls and Stormers representatives who competed to the bitter end of that competition have been summoned to Test duty with indecent haste. Read, more accurately: without any rest at all.
Some players are being mismanaged and near-exploited, by my book, in defiance of warnings from the sports medicine fraternity.
The Witbank game probably only confirmed, in some cases, that while hearts may be willing in defence of the green-and-gold cause, minds and bodies are not exactly brimming with lustre.
Bryan Habana was a classic case in point. Still dangerous in bursts as a fine finisher and committed defender, this was a notably split-personality showing from him, with the left wing making an unusual gaffe or two and his focus going AWOL at important moments.
Not that Habana was alone in any fumble-fingers characteristic: several others fell prey to it as continuity was a glaring fault for the Boks.
They were guilty of failing to manage the “pill” nearly carefully enough at rucks or rolling mauls and the problem was compounded by Ricky Januarie, at scrumhalf, blowing decidedly hot and cold with his passing and general controlling of things. (He was certainly not all bad, his barrage of vocal critics need to be reminded.)
No 8 Pierre Spies also had an iffy day at the office, one minute providing a pass that would lead to a score and the next surrendering the ball to the opportunistic Italians frustratingly in contact for so big a specimen.
Another negative simply must not be ignored: Butch James, employed first at inside centre and then at flyhalf in the closing stages, earned a stupid yellow card for a trademark high tackle at a time when the Boks were attempting to turn screws, and instead the Italians got a bit of a second wind that actually saw them “win” the second half 10-7.
Somebody needs to come down like a ton of bricks on this otherwise solid, versatile customer – if that penchant were to rear its head for him in a really red-letter Springbok game, it could prove much more costly.
As Joel Stransky put it in commentary: “His mind disappears (at times) and leaves his body.”
There were some bright Bok aspects, like the fact that they were so palpably out-of-synch but nevertheless managed the imaginary “bonus point” for four tries, a couple of them cleverly worked.
Zane Kirchner set up one for Habana with a deft grubber off his wrong foot, while the fullback also registered his maiden Test try off Januarie’s final pass on the short side. And Jean de Villiers was reasonably convincing in the outside centre channel.
A pleasing aspect of the Bok pack was a mostly forceful showing in the scrums, where Gurthro Steenkamp was all fire and brimstone against Italy’s strongman Martin Castrogiovanni – so much so that the big No 3 was bent back like a swiftly-reversed banana in one and it led to his early exit with apparently damaged ribs.
Chiliboy Ralepelle worked honestly in the hooker’s jersey, and he is benefiting, touch wood, from a reasonable stint of injury-free rugby for a change.
And Francois Louw continues to build his reputation as an influential combatant on the deck.
He is built so intriguingly differently to someone like Heinrich Brussow, presently on the long-term casualty list, but is immensely powerful from his lower legs right through to his shoulders and can, of course, contribute equally comfortably as a barnstorming ball-carrier and adaptable blind-sider if required.
Five out of 10, Boks, at best. Try to up it to seven or eight in East London …