Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - Considering his team has lost four games in a row and has won just five in 11 Tests played since last year’s domination of the Tri-Nations, Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has a surprisingly upbeat view on life.
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There were no signs of the pressure that he must be under when he faced up to the media at Loftus on Monday as he turned his attention towards the final stage of a Tri-Nations campaign that has been nothing short of disastrous for his men. After four matches, the Boks have just a solitary bonus point for losing by less than seven to the All Blacks at the FNB Stadium last Saturday.
While many critics are treating a home defeat at altitude in front of nearly 100 000 patriotic South Africans as a massive blow to the psyche – after all, if the Boks can’t beat the All Blacks in that situation and when playing with such passion, when are they going to beat them? – De Villiers has taken a different view.
“I have watched the video of the match over and over again and what I have realised is that I got too caught up in winning and losing last week and didn’t focus enough on the team performance,” said De Villiers.
“We were five to seven minutes away from glory. If I was to make it personal and to say they played for me then I would have to say the players really stood up for me. That makes me feel really good.”
However a year ago the Boks were the dominant force in the southern hemisphere tournament, and it is a sign of how far they have slipped that their coach can be finding consolation and positives from a defeat which came on a day when all the external factors were in South Africa’s favour.
The two remaining matches are against an Australian team that has not won at altitude since 1963, and while skipper John Smit has focused the goal on winning the Mandela Cup on offer to the team which wins the best of three battle between the two nations, the reality is that the All Blacks match was the one that could have turned around public sentiment.
Against a rebuilding Wallaby team they should be expected to win at home, and it will be another unwanted piece of history if they don’t as it would mean the Australians have broken their post-isolation duck on the Highveld.
There is already much justification for the clamour for change to both leadership and team management, and De Villiers does not make it easier for himself by his apparent refusal to recognise that there are things that need to be rectified.
But defeats at home to Australia and a last place in the Tri-Nations would almost certainly be the last straw and force SA Rugby to act, so De Villiers should be pleased that he could be in a position to choose his strongest combination of the season when the team is announced lunch-time Tuesday.
What would stand in the way would be if Juan Smith’s abdominal strain is serious enough to keep him out, which seems unlikely. Schalk Burger did enough at the breakdown against New Zealand to justify the retention of the same loose trio that did duty in the last match, and Danie Rossouw must surely return as the starting lock partner for centurion Victor Matfield now that he has recovered full fitness.
Francois Hougaard’s form in his first start as a test player was excellent, but it is when you get outside of him that the selection dilemmas start arriving. Juan de Jongh was good against the All Blacks, but his Stormers teammate Jaque Fourie is now back from suspension and ready to play.
“I was speaking to All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith, who I respect as a real rugby man, after the game and he said I have an interesting choice to make,” said De Villiers.
Given where the Boks are at the moment, and the desperate need for a win, he will surely go for experience, and reunite Fourie with Jean de Villiers – a selection which, along with several others, is really long overdue and should have been made during the overseas leg.
There is a clamour for the head of Bryan Habana after his defensive error that enabled Richie McCaw to score the equalising try at FNB Stadium, but the left wing did look sharper than he has in a while and Loftus, where Saturday’s match is to be played, is his old stomping ground.
Presumably those who want him dropped are thinking that Gio Aplon could move to wing, which would create space in the last line of defence for Frans Steyn.
The most reassuring aspect from a South African viewpoint of Monday’s training session at Loftus would surely have been the sight of Steyn’s booming boot sending the ball soaring into the distance. Clearly the Racing Metro player has lost none of the power in his kicking boot and that will come in handy against Australia.
But De Villiers is not sure he will select Steyn straight into the starting team.
“The player (Aplon) who played in Frans’ position against the All Blacks did not do badly, and we should be careful of changing for the sake of changing. But to become sentimental on anything I do means that I don’t make the logical decisions to take the team forward,” said De Villiers.
The Springbok team to face the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday at 17:00 will be announced at 13:00 on Tuesday.