Boks earn stay of execution

2010-08-30 06:46

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Imperfect? And then some. Thrilling? Well, mostly through the game’s laughable structural quality. A win? Thank the almighty, the Boks will happily bank it!

South Africa finally climbed off the foot of the grotesquely lopsided Vodacom Tri-Nations 2010 ladder at Loftus on Saturday, courtesy of a breathless, bunnies-on-speed 44-31 triumph over Australia.

This was a clash of the sloppy seconds (and thirds, of course) and it was all too apparent for much of the 80 minutes – although if you’re a fan of implausible, B-grade action movies, here was a fitting equivalent shot between white lines.

Be that as it may, a new beginning in sport, if this is how the ping-pong contest may yet come to be remembered for the Boks, can have strange starting points and characteristics, can’t it?

And speaking of character, it was a vital ingredient of the Springbok makeup that didn’t go walkabout in Pretoria, being the dubious main template on which this triumph was based.

I speculated beforehand that, courtesy of the Wallabies’ truly atrocious record at altitude, the Boks might steal this one even if they failed to bring along their sharpest tools to the workshop, and that is pretty much what transpired.

Mind you, I will admit to a quiet fear, as they conceded a spine-chilling three tries in the first 10 minutes, that my theory was going to be unceremoniously tipped into the wood-shavings bin.

Here, after all, was a national team with a real crisis of confidence … and already some of their most under-fire senior citizens like ton-up Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana had made glaring personal mistakes as the Aussies orchestrated their mini-blitz.

Thank goodness, then, that the Wallabies are just as riddled with hang-ups and self-doubt, as Robbie Deans still struggles in his grim quest to transform them into genuine “contenders”.

Once the Boks had quickly hit back with some counter-strikes of their own in the frantic pillow fight, you just sensed that they would somehow be alright on the proverbial night.

Nevertheless, this match was a darned sight closer than the final score suggests: the awful prospect of a fifth defeat on the trot still loomed large for John Smit’s side for much of the second half.

South Africa, let’s not forget, only actually hit the lead in the 50th minute and they had to repel waves of concerted raids before JP Pietersen’s touchdown a minute ahead of the siren mercifully put the game out of enemy reach and left the try tally at 5-4 to the Boks.

Give credit where it is due: this clincher was arguably the most enthralling of the nine tries registered, with lovely lead-up work from Francois Hougaard and Jean de Villiers.

So helter-skelter and BaaBaas-like was the fixture – and it was surely not intended to be so – that even veteran microphone man Hugh Bladen seemed out of breath as Alain Rolland brought it to a close.

“Uuh, I don’t know who man-of-the-match is,” Blades very honestly stammered. It had taken some thinking, one imagines, considering how the match veered between the good, the bad and the ugly and so many individual protagonists mixed brilliance with blemish.

But Hougaard was a fair enough recipient in the end; the tigerish little Bulls scrumhalf produced his second sprightly performance in as many Saturdays and we can comfortably pencil him in now, I think, as worthy understudy to Fourie du Preez once the established genius returns to his Bok post – and ought to be a key influence in bringing some sanity and composure to proceedings at times, too.

Hougaard sniped threateningly, and mostly gave an improved Morne Steyn a decent service, but perhaps his most telling contribution to the priceless win was a try-saving, nail-bomb tackle on Adam Ashley-Cooper as the Wallaby outside back rampaged toward a likely touchdown in the 58th minute that would have restored an Aussie lead and given them great second wind for a famous, bogey-breaking upset.

Inside centre De Villiers exuded class through the slop as well: he ran some interesting angles at times, carried with commitment and intent and again allayed fears that his first-time defence can be a slightly lightweight aspect of his armoury.

He was also, on a day when several Boks were under scrutiny over fitness levels, among those who seemed to have some gas left in the tank at the death – and this was the kind of chuck-about unlikely to leave too much oxygen in its topsy-turvy wake.

Hats off to Matfield for overcoming a wonky start and busting the phenomenon of Bok 100th-cappers having their big day out spoiled by defeat.

He was as responsible as anyone for giving the Wallaby line-out the collywobbles at important moments, and thus easing pressure on South Africa when they were heavily under the cosh.

Smit, the captain, was a lot better at his core responsibilities after way too many five-out-of-10 performances, although taking him off after an hour was a sound call by the coaching staff -- Chiliboy Ralepelle’s fresh legs did help in the Bok close-out of this one.

It would be stretching things to brand it a “march” onward to Bloemfontein, but if the Boks can slam the brakes on the match tempo a bit, regain some still-absent adhesiveness on defence and force more set-pieces than was the case at Loftus, they ought to be in business against these foes once more.

They still have work to do to regain full public confidence, it seems, as evidenced by the unusual swathes of empty seats at the home of Bulls leader Matfield.

Yes, even on his landmark occasion …