Rugby World Cup 2011

Smit doubt looms over Boks

2011-09-03 06:36
John Smit (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - South Africa's preparations for their World Cup defence have been shaken by questions over whether their highly-respected captain, hooker John Smit, is the right man to once again lead them into battle, or whether his presence will prove a telling weak link.

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Smit's inspirational leadership and solid play were lauded as being major factors in the Springboks' 2007 World Cup triumph in France. Four years on, and many South Africans consider Smit to be symbolic of that team's demise, his presence being blamed for their slide from the peak of world rugby.

Smit's cause has not been helped by the form of his Sharks team-mate and rival for the number two jersey, Bismarck du Plessis, whose abrasive play and sheer physical presence have won him many admirers.

South Africa's poor recent form - they have lost eight of their 10 Tri-Nations matches against World Cup favourites New Zealand and Australia in the last two years - has raised questions over whether coach Peter de Villiers' decision to retain most of the 2007 World Cup-winning squad is a wise one.

It will allow the Springboks to field a vastly experienced team in New Zealand, with the likes of wings Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen, centres Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie, scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, flank Schalk Burger, locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, and Smit knowing what it takes to beat the world.

But the change in law interpretations, now favouring the attacking team retaining the ball, has been a blow to the Springboks' formerly highly-effective kicking strategy and suffocating defence, and it remains to be seen whether they can adapt to a game that has become faster and more fluid.

South Africa's defence has also become alarmingly soft, conceding 22 tries in last year's Tri-Nations and 11 in two matches on the away leg this year, though it did stiffen in their two matches at home, when their defensive line was breached several times but they conceded just two tries.

While the "old guard" may be falling out of favour with the fickle South African public, De Villiers has included some new blood that has occasionally lifted the Springboks from their slumber.

Prop Tendai Mtawarira and flanker Willem Alberts are powerful ball-carriers, while exciting backs like Pat Lambie, Francois Hougaard, Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh are capable of scintillating play.

But it is openside flanker Heinrich Brussow who will perhaps be most crucial to South Africa's hopes. He is the only player who has the pace and skills to match New Zealand's Richie McCaw and Australia's David Pocock, who have proven to be the Springboks' chief nemeses in the Tri-Nations.

But with a hard-driving forward pack, a powerful lineout, a marvellous playmaker in Du Preez, and a history of being able to win knockout games, the Springboks are optimistic they will quickly return to winning ways in the World Cup.

South Africa open their World Cup campaign on Sept. 11 against Wales, their chief rivals in Pool D, although their matches against Samoa and Fiji will be bruising encounters as well.


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