Cape Town - The sudden, public revelation that their captain is close to international retirement does little to allay any doom-mongers’ fear that if things are pretty unstable in the Springbok camp already, perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet.
On the very day that the Boks jetted off for probably their two toughest legs of the Test season - away to Australia and then particularly imperious New Zealand in the Castle Rugby Championship - a media release from SA Rugby popped up like a pimple on an early teenaged schoolboy, alerting the rugby world that Adriaan Strauss, South Africa’s already beleaguered 2016 skipper, would quit the arena at year’s end.
Sport’s capacity for surprises - and perhaps more often of the negative kind these days - in our country knows no bounds, so a resigned “ja well, no fine” sort of response is highly likely to have been the initial reaction in many SA households as sundowner solace was spiritedly sought from fridges or cabinets on Thursday.
The Bok landscape had already looked murky in recent months (results, use of personnel, intended game-plan … you name it) and whatever the honour-seeking official spin placed on the 30-year-old Strauss’s move, sage observers won’t buy into the development too enthusiastically.
I know I can’t, and don’t.
The key question, really, is “why now?”
Even if team selection next week - it is earmarked for Thursday, just two days before the fixture -- for the Wallabies challenge in Brisbane may prove me wide of the mark, it is extremely difficult not to speculate that Strauss was at high risk of the chop and that his revelation somehow paves the way that bit more justifiably for an alternative figure to lead the Boks onto Suncorp Stadium.
I suggested before Salta that the Springboks’ fifth game of coach Allister Coetzee’s tenure might well be the one which forced him into making harsh, rather more pronounced selection swaps onward, after a period of reasonable patience with some of his misfiring troops.
The fact that the Boks ended up losing their unbeaten record in Argentina - and were close to woeful until the bench provided certain shafts of light - may well have convinced him that a shake-up was finally necessary.
Purely from a playing point of view, Strauss has almost unquestionably been one of a handful of supposedly senior figures failing to meet known expectations.
Things might have been so different right now had the 59-capper, so often previously a yeoman servant of the cause, been on top of his own game – we might not have been provided with Thursday’s curveball press statement, either.
It is not as though his leadership, as such, has been a special snag: even as they have had to eke out just about all of their three victories and the two defeats (Ireland, Pumas) have been close, the Springboks have seldom lacked suitable desperation to get the job done - their array of shortcomings have been much more to do with pure “rugby” reasons.
I was also among the quite swollen group of critics who lauded the appointment of Strauss in the first place, reckoning he was a good man for the post in a rebuilding phase.
But that also didn’t take into account the surprising degree to which he has subsequently regressed as the team’s hooker – perhaps the cares of green-and-gold leadership weighing too heavily on him? - nor the later indication, via the SA Rugby statement, that Strauss had already informed his coach he was chewing on the prospect of retirement at the end of the year.
Is that not something the rugby public might reasonably have deserved to know at the time he assumed the job?
It also raises the rightful argument of whether Strauss’s heart was ever going to be truly in it, given the supposed knowledge that his trotting off into a self-imposed sunset beckoned larger than we imagined.
So it makes it implausible - certainly for me - to believe that everything is under firm control and broadly hunky-dory in the Bok camp.
Is there any point in Strauss continuing the captaincy, or even still keeping positional back-ups Bongi Mbonambi or Malcolm Marx out of the first XV, given that he quits seven Test matches (four Championship, three end-of-year northern tour) up the drag?
If there’s more “blooding” to be done, both in the middle of the front row and with leadership, shouldn’t that process best start immediately?
A complicating factor with the captaincy is that the current Bok squad doesn’t ooze attractive other options.
Veteran vice-captain Bryan Habana plays in an unsuitably distant berth on the park, Warren Whiteley is a compelling leader of men but not yet emphatically nailed down as No 8, and flank stalwart Francois Louw is in much the same boat as Strauss – hardly playing his most vintage own rugby.
Problems, problems, problems ... with those fearsome All Blacks only a fortnight away, in Christchurch.
I offer two words. One is “up”.
But the other is “balls”.
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