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Bok inactivity: curse or blessing?

2015-09-07 12:51
Heyneke Meyer (pic)

Cape Town – By the time the Springboks begin their World Cup campaign against Japan at Brighton on September 19, five weeks will have elapsed since their last international.

They will thus enter the tournament less match-sharp than most of their four Pool B opponents, which obviously carries certain risks.

Only their second foes, Samoa, have played less rugby than the Boks in recent weeks: all of the Japanese, plus Scotland and the United States, have played at least two Tests in the period since South Africa downed Argentina 26-12 in a post-Rugby Championship clash in Buenos Aires on August 15.

Their first-round opponents have been more prolific than any of the others – Japan have just completed as many as three successive weekends of games while the Boks have focussed solely on training and conditioning.

After winning a mini-series 2-0 against Uruguay, Japan completed a RWC warm-up hat-trick of sorts (albeit not necessarily one to send shivers down superpower Bok spines) on Saturday by nosing out Georgia 13-10 in Gloucester.

Judging by reports, the feisty game was played rather more like a “real deal” World Cup clash than a limb-loosener.

All RWC participants now enter a fortnight outside of competitive action before the event begins on September 18 with main host nation England playing Fiji at Twickenham.

But it is interesting to note how some teams have placed a considerably higher value on immediate pre-tournament fixtures than others.

The Boks are a bit like New Zealand – and perhaps that is some comfort in itself? – in having taken the approach of shielding their assets from competition; the defending champion, still No 1-ranked All Blacks have also not played since August 15.

But this pair’s other major southern hemisphere rivals, the Wallabies, have contrastingly ensured themselves a Test-match gallop two weeks ahead of the World Cup by playing the United States in Chicago on Saturday.

The Aussies were reportedly pretty awful in the first period (having started with a largely second-string combination), but then infused some bigger guns in the second to snap out of their torpor and eventually run out 47-10 winners and by seven tries to one.

It should be kept in mind, perhaps, that the Wallabies having a Test match so soon before RWC 2015 may have been partly influenced by their later start to the tournament than most: they kick off against Fiji four days later than the Boks tackle Japan.

But we have also seen some of the perils attached to playing fairly cut-throat rugby only two weeks before the event – Wales have seen potentially serious injuries afflict both scrumhalf Rhys Webb and dead-eye place-kicker Leigh Halfpenny, as they edged out Italy 23-19 at the weekend.

That game followed a trend in recent weeks among several other significant northern hemisphere powers, in playing tough fixtures in what virtually amounted to another “Six Nations” in the RWC lead-up.

We should see reasonably quickly in the World Cup whether these often punishing matches have suitably sharpened the best European teams for combat on the highest stage of them all, or taken a bit too much out of them.

Another thing to remember, in relation to Australia’s tactics in trekking all the way to Chicago on the eve of the event, is that they are in the notorious “pool of death” also featuring England and Wales, so are under special pressure to hit the ground running.

Both the Boks and All Blacks are in pools which, with respect to the various teams they will lock horns with, really should not prevent either from qualifying for the quarter-finals even if there is an isolated slip-up en route.

It seems clear that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, whether he is prepared to admit it publicly or not, is going to effectively treat a few of the pool games as his RWC “warm-ups” for the more critical business that begins with the quarters.

That approach has some strong merit, as does Steve Hansen’s seemingly parallel view for his All Blacks charges, who will have to be atrociously off their game to struggle to subdue the likes of Namibia, Georgia or Tonga in Pool C.

Yet a notably “rugby-free” lead-up may also contain some pitfalls; we shall have to wait and see exactly how the policy pans out.

The last time the Boks both won the World Cup and played it in European conditions – in 2007 – it is perhaps worth mentioning that they played Scotland in Edinburgh and hearteningly won 27-3 just a fortnight before they also got their RWC off to a rollicking start in thumping Samoa 59-7 in Paris.

*Here is a summary of Test match results featuring the RWC Pool B teams from the weekend starting August 22, a period marked by total dormancy by South Africa:

Japan: beat Uruguay 30-8 (h) and 40-0 (h); beat Georgia 13-10 (neutral)

Scotland: beat Italy 16-12 (a) and 48-7 (h); lost 19-16 to France (a)

United States: beat Canada 41-23 (a); lost 47-10 to Australia (h)

South Africa and Samoa: No activity.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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