Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24
Durban – It was billed in the local papers as
a sentimental goodbye to hometown Test rugby for John Smit ... instead the
Springbok captain ended up being at the centre of what appeared a costly
tactical blunder on Saturday.
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South Africa were edged out 14-9 by
Australia in the Castle Tri-Nations fixture at Mr Price Kings Park here,
consigning them to last-placed finish regardless of whether they beat New Zealand
in Port Elizabeth next week.
The threat remains, too, of the Boks
experiencing a first-time, winless campaign in the southern hemisphere event,
which would hardly be the ideal way to enter their defence of the World Cup,
whatever the deceptive influence of putting out a “reserve” side for the first
half of the tournament.
And now the already hot debate around
Smit’s playing-level suitability to lead the troops into action at RWC 2011
will only crank up a notch, after he was very questionably switched to tighthead
prop some 10 minutes into the second half, when three simultaneous alterations
Although substitute hooker Bismarck du
Plessis entered the fray to immediate, dynamic effect as his brother Jannie was
withdrawn, the veteran skipper moving to the key “right shoulder” slot had the
impact only of moving the Wallaby scrum, which had been largely well dealt with
at the set piece until then, into overdrive.
In a game that was always a ding-dong
affair in blustery conditions and with driving rain arriving in the last
quarter, the Boks went on to concede a crucial – and duly goaled -- penalty at
scrum-time because they were basically going backwards at a rate of knots.
Out of fairness to Smit, he has been
gradually reconditioning himself in recent weeks and months to fit the demands
of hooker, so installing him as the supposed strongman at tighthead even for
short stints late on just seems more and more foolhardy.
When he left the park with an arm injury
four minutes from the end, Jannie du Plessis returned to combat and the
Springbok scrum immediately looked in less difficulty again – although the
horse had pretty much bolted by then as the Wallabies held on without major
fuss for a doggedly-earned triumph.
Coach Peter de Villiers said afterwards that
Du Plessis, the starting No 3, had run out of steam when he was pulled off, as
had been expected to occur for a few stalwart Boks returning to competitive
duty for the first time in several weeks.
He also made the point that for much of his
time back at tighthead, Smit lost the benefit of having known second-row
powerhouse Bakkies Botha scrumming behind him (the big Bulls bruiser was
substituted for Gerhard Mostert with 17 minutes left on the clock).
Of course there is also a case for saying
the Bok strategists themselves should have thought of that potential hazard.
So it was an unfortunate way for Smit to
end his major-match tenure in this city, although it must also be noted that he
is indeed warming increasingly to international activity again as a No 2.
Like several of his fellow seniors coming
out of cobwebs on the day, he produced a suitably muscular showing in the first
half, when the Boks held the whip hand: the 33-year-old tackled and cleaned out
with venom and there are also grounds for suggesting his lineout throwing
remains a tad more reliable to that of the younger Du Plessis brother.
I had always feared that the Boks might be
trouble in this match, however, if they hadn’t managed to rack up a decent
enough lead by the break (it was only 6-0, and then very quickly 6-3 as play
resumed after halftime).
The ever-wily Wallabies made sure they kept
some gradually wilting Springboks on the move as the game wore on, and the
truth was that before the final whistle the home side were mostly running up
dead ends and not looking likely candidates at all to get the required try that
could have swung the outcome.
Still, there was some light at the end of
the tunnel, for those Bok supporters prepared to keep the faith as the World Cup
Several of the old guard rumbled back into
Test mode fairly convincingly for 40 or 50 minutes, among them being the
oft-maligned Pierre Spies, plus Botha, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Beast
Mtawarira, who made some impressive surges and skeleton-rattling “hits”.
And of some slightly younger favourites
returning to the cause, Frans Steyn did some useful things in the last line of
defence and Heinrich Brussow gave the service desired of him at the breakdown
and occasionally in alert cover defence.
There is something to work with once more,
as they say: let’s see if it is enough to knock over an All Blacks side missing
a few tough cookies of their own for a change.
That would be a tonic the Boks now cry out