Rob Houwing

Boks under-boiled?

2009-06-11 13:07
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – So there the Springboks were, sitting languidly in the Absa Stadium stands, feet up and soaking in the Lions’ high-energy tour match against the Sharks.

They were smiling and seemed in good general fettle, despite an outcome – a 36-point roasting of the home side is exactly that, weakened combo or not! – that has me a tad more nervous about the Boks’ Test series prospects than I was before Jonathan Kaplan’s shrill first whistle.

Most of the South African squad were wearing pretty stylish, hooded white sweatshirts-cum-tracksuit-tops.

They might have been mistaken for an art deco ensemble of lawn tennis players in the 1930s, waiting politely to take to court. Or even a group of tenpin bowlers … though I might be reluctant to venture to Bakkies Botha or Bismarck du Plessis that all they’re good for is clattering over a few skittles.

I make these analogies in no small measure because some decidedly opposite phenomena are presently taking place: the tourists grunting and grinding their way through matches every three or four days - and getting an increasing kick out of it, I feel - and the Boks, by contrast, cocooned in deep swathes of cotton wool.

May 16: That’s when many of the national players (read: the non-Bulls component) last played a rugby game of any consequence, in the last round of Super 14 “league” matches.

We are coming up for a full month since that occasion, and I not sure whether we should even factor in what appeared to be a relatively pallid, very experimental little run-out in Windhoek (predictably hearty post-match sentiment from the Bok management notwithstanding).

Exhaust their foes

Meanwhile, the Lions are gently, unobtrusively raising bars. There was enough evidence of that as they ran in five tries to nil against a very credible - yet soberingly still back-pedalling - Sharks pack and admittedly second-string back division.

I thought the Lions played a smart game, even if they did not wholly convince for 80 minutes: soften and exhaust their foes in the first 40 minutes (as you would when you’re bossing 80 percent possession and field position) and then stretch the three-quarters’ legs, sometimes quite elegantly and crisply, after the break.

There was impressive limb-strength generally in the Lions XV on the night, and their conditioning and stamina is starting to look convincing, too.

It is entirely possible, of course, that behind their mostly closed doors – the vogue these days, I’m afraid – much simultaneous, positive energy is going into Bok preparations.

You would mightily hope so, because this tour has been known about and crowed about for months and even years.

All three Tests are the proverbial “massive”: but let’s call the Durban opener, at the very coastal battlefield the Lions had mastery of on Wednesday night, mega-massive.

It will be that because ever-shrewd Ian McGeechan and company know it represents their inviting chance to get their noses in front – if they cannot manage it there, then prospects of prevailing on successive Saturdays on the highveld suddenly turn fairly bleak.

Win at the seaside, though, and the tourists are certainly “on” for a repeat of the shock 2-1 1997 outcome.

So it is vital the Boks hit the ground running in this series. Durban is no opportunity to “take a look at things”. It must be straight down to business.

Thus the way they have structured their build-up to the first encounter opens itself to especially critical scrutiny.

The Durban Test will tell us whether the home side come out like caged beasts, champing for conflict after weeks of jealous pampering and protection, or whether they will suffer fatally through a shortage of game sharpness.

And if it’s the latter, then those who pooh-poohed Sharks guru John Plumtree’s assertion that more Boks should have been freed to lend the provincial games against the tourists greater gravitas and aid their own preparedness, might have to sheepishly apologise to “Plum” …

Rob Houwing is Sport24's chief writer

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.


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