Boks need attitude at altitude

2012-06-14 11:25
Jean de Villiers (Gallo)

Johannesburg – The Highveld “altitude factor” has become something of a cliché in rugby terms, for the way it supposedly favours home causes in major matches against overseas opposition.

Sometimes you suspect that just a part of this legend amounts to, well, hot air ... that it is a psychological bogey to throw at visiting teams in the hope that it plants a virus of fear and uncertainty.

And of course outfits from New Zealand or Australia, whether at Test or Super Rugby level, have increasingly been able to pooh-pooh its importance by securing some majestic wins of their own at altitude, actually revelling in the faster pace of the game, greater distance on kicks and rock-hard nature of pitches.

Yet the very fact remains that this city does lie at some 1,750m, and sides from the northern hemisphere - far more so than the other elements of the SANZAR alliance these days -- play particularly seldom in that lung-busting environment.

People in South Africa a tad anxious about the Springboks’ prospects for the first Test against England in Durban last Saturday pointed to dubious scheduling: they had a point in their argument that it might have been better, what with the Bok side cobbled together so quickly and under the new management of Heyneke Meyer and company, to open proceedings on the Highveld.

Whatever the itinerary merits or demerits, South Africa prevailed fairly convincingly in Durban and money has since shifted even further, it seems, toward the Boks putting an early seal on the three-Test series at Coca-Cola Park this weekend before the return to coastal conditions in Port Elizabeth.

It was interesting noting the views of the neutral panel on New Zealand television talk show Re:Union this week ... the consensus among anchor Tony Johnson, Grant Nisbett and Jeff Wilson was that with Mr Price Kings Park out of the way, England “shouldn’t have a prayer” in the Big Smoke.

England’s Test side is in a rebuilding phase, of course, so currently contains notably few world-wise customers with good knowledge of various points of the compass, and the intimidating Doornfontein venue – the Boks’ symbolic heartland where they sport a 70% win record after 43 Tests – undoubtedly will strongly examine their mental and physical parameters.

At a media briefing this week, coach Meyer played down the importance of the Boks turning out this weekend at a ground they are obviously fond of.

“Firstly I think England are a quality side and I have a lot of respect for their team and coaching panel, so I don’t really see it as such.

“Every single game is a Test match; that’s why these games are branded exactly that. We know we need to keep our feet on the ground and be very focussed. Altitude is to our advantage, definitely ... but that, and the stadium or the people in it don’t win the Test match for you.”

If Meyer indeed wants to keep his men from picking up pre-game complacency, he might do well to remind them of what happened the last time a Test was staged at the ground – that was in July three years ago when the British and Irish Lions won the dead-rubber final Test by a convincing 28-9.

Not only that, but the previous week they came within a whisker of winning the second Test also at altitude when they were denied in a late, late Bok show 28-25 at Loftus.

The only convincing Springbok victory of that series, curiously, had also come in a Durban-based first-Test scenario.

So the English management are sure to remind their charges that the Highveld factor can be more or less tamed by men from their chillier and lower-lying climes.

With the 2009 series already wrapped up, then-Bok coach Peter de Villiers controversially made many changes to his line-up for Coca-Cola Park, and they put in a disjointed performance as the Lions salvaged a fair bit of pride.

The only starting Bok “survivors” of that occasion this Saturday will be loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira and flyhalf Morne Steyn.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  england in sa  |  johannesburg  |  rugby

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