Rugby World Cup 2011
Title beyond 'geriatric' Boks?
John Smit (File)
Johannesburg - Sporting history is littered with tales of great teams and individuals who did not know when to quit and suffered humiliating exits.
Many South African supporters fear a similar fate awaits the 'green and gold' at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand as they try to become the first country to successfully defend the title.
Up to 12 of the 2007 cup-winning team could start against Wales in Wellington on September 11 with retired Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt and injured Juan Smith the only definite absentees.
While some of the side that conquered England 15-6 in the Paris final remain worthy of starting places, there are large question marks hanging over others like captain and hooker John Smit.
Johannesburg Star writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen puts 2007 skipper Smit fourth behind Bismarck du Plessis, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Adriaan Strauss in a South African hookers order of merit.
The Times columnist Archie Henderson was equally blunt: "He (Smit) is not the best hooker in the country, nor, indeed, the second best. He is not even among the top 10 tight-heads."
When coach Peter de Villiers sends Du Plessis on as a replacement, he regularly moves Smit to tighthead prop with sometimes disastrous results for the team.
In a home Tri-Nations Test loss to Australia this month, a Springbok scrum that had held its own suddenly fell apart in the closing stages when Smit switched front-row positions.
Wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, flyhalf Butch James, tight-head CJ van der Linde, lock Bakkies Botha and utility forward Danie Rossouw are others who have battled at times.
Smit disagrees with the "geriatrics" label critics have stuck to his squad: "I believe we are a better squad now than in 2007 and we were a very good squad at that tournament."
"I cannot bear to watch the Springboks playing like this any more," moaned 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White after one home loss before his unsuccessful attempt to unseat De Villiers.
The current coach enjoyed a glorious 2009, winning a three-Test series with the British and Irish Lions and bringing the Tri-Nations trophy to South Africa for only the third time.
But the rest of a four-year reign has varied between been average, poor and dismal with pundits pointing to his inability to alter the course of a match in which South Africa are struggling.
He promised a new, bolder approach after replacing White, but the team seems set to take its much-loved kick-chase-harass approach into the World Cup despite repeated recent failures.
Vice-captain Matfield and Botha no longer lord the line-outs, the scrum can be vulnerable and a threequarter line that favours brawn over brain struggles endlessly to find gaps.
Injuries have also taken their toll with flank-cum-No 8 Smith, often the unsung star of a Springbok triumph, ruled out along with two-metre-plus third-choice lock Andries Bekker.
It will also concern De Villiers that likely first-choice flanks Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussow have been battling injuries with the former missing the entire Tri-Nations.
But the biggest worry for many is uncertainty over who fills the vital flyhalf position with Morne Steyn, the best goal-kicker in the world when on song, suffering untimely poor form.
Alternative James, who helped the Springboks win in Paris, offers more flair but his goal kicking is erratic and he has a habit of making rash challenges that bring yellow cards.
Fourie du Preez only recently returned from an injury-induced 21-month Test absence and the scrumhalf considered the best in the world two seasons ago must prove himself again.
South Africa should win a group including Fiji, Namibia, Samoa and Wales, but if they get past likely quarter-finals opponents Ireland, their nemesis the All Blacks loom large.