Reality bites for Boks
Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - Frans Steyn’s return to the group and Jaque Fourie’s comeback from suspension will mean the Springboks are in a position to choose their strongest starting team of the season in Saturday’s Tri-Nations clash with Australia in Pretoria.
GALLERY: Springboks v All Blacks
Steyn is due to link up with the Boks on Monday after being summoned from France following a bizarre sequence of mis-communications between the Bok management and Steyn and his club, Racing Metro. Whether he will be selected straight into the starting team remains to be seen as Gio Aplon played bravely against New Zealand, but there can be no doubt his booming boot will come in useful in the thin Highveld air.
You had to be at the FNB Stadium for the epic clash between the Boks and the All Blacks at the weekend to be reminded of the impact the altitude has on kicking. The ball just flies so much further and higher than on the coast, and until the second half, it looked as though the All Blacks might be getting it horribly wrong by running it back against the Boks rather than kicking it.
However, the New Zealanders, even though by their own admission they were off their game, showed the necessary fortitude and championship qualities to fight back for a well deserved 29-22 win which emphatically clinched them the Tri-Nations in fine style and ended any argument over which team is the best in the world.
After the away leg of the Tri-Nations there was a sense from the Boks that maybe they had just been complacent. Some of the talk coming from the camp suggested that just a few small things had gone wrong in Australasia and that all it would require was a minor correction.
They did correct several areas where they had fallen down before, most notably their defence and their breakdown work. Their bravery and passion extending the All Blacks to the extent that they had to wait for the last move of the game to score the winning try that for much of the second half had looked inevitable.
But whereas their coach Peter de Villiers afterwards came up with the comment that his team had shown that they could win against any opponent anywhere on a given day, the Boks had to swallow a harsh dose of reality – on a day when all the external factors were in their favour, they still lost.
Not only that, but had the All Blacks made better use of their second half opportunities, and had Dan Carter not gone walkabout with his place-kicking, the New Zealanders would have won far more comfortably than they did.
Brave and gutsy though the Boks were, Richie McCaw’s men were still better than them by some distance, and this on a day when they had to face down not just the passionate Boks but a record 94 000 passionate Bok supporters. That they still won, and came from behind to do so, just confirmed the All Black dominance at international level this year.
While some experienced players are coming back into the mix, and Juan Smith showed in the game just how much he has been missed, the Boks have some important questions to answer and a couple of thorny dilemmas facing them.
All Black coach Graham Henry touched on one of the biggest Bok problems when afterwards he praised his own conditioning staff. So much for the All Blacks’ high tempo game being undone by the altitude, it was the Boks who were left gasping for air and looking flat-footed at the end.
You got the impression late in the game that had there been an extra 10 minutes, the All Blacks might have run riot and won by 20 points. From the vantage point of the press box at the magnificent stadium, it was obvious from about 25 minutes from the end that several of the key Springboks were out on their feet and that the team was just hanging on.
That they did so right to the end was a tribute to guts and tenacity, but the way the game ended just confirmed the old saying that sometimes guts and tenacity just aren’t enough. In some ways it was like a return to the dark days of the early part of this decade, with passion driving the Boks to a certain point but no further and South Africans grabbing some consolation in honourable defeat.
The Bok inability to be cohesive with ball in hand, their failure to stay the pace, the lack of any noticeable innovative edge from the coaching staff since the away leg were all disturbing and ominous signals that the time has come to now face up to reality and make some hard decisions.
Far from being proof that the Boks can beat any team, anywhere on any day, Saturday proved that the Boks are vulnerable and have been over-taken by the game's leaders. This in a season where South Africa so comprehensively dominated the Super 14 that many New Zealanders were fearing the worst.
Australia have not won on the Highveld since 1963 so the Boks must be favoured to win the last two matches, but the Wallabies should have been emboldened by the way the South Africans fell away in the second half at the FNB Stadium.
With Quade Cooper back, they have the ability to stretch the Boks in the same way that the All Blacks did, and the harsh reality for the Boks is that even if their coaches decided they wanted to play the quicker game, the make-up of their current squad does not suggest they have the players to do it.