Rugby Championship

Injustice to fire up Boks?

2014-09-07 22:43
Jean de Villiers (Gallo)

Cape Town – It is fast becoming the “100 hoodoo” ... and it is a trend South Africa must fight grimly to snap when they take on the might of New Zealand in the Castle Rugby Championship on Saturday (Wellington, 09:35 SA time).

Three of four Springboks to have earned the milestone for caps – Percy Montgomery, John Smit and now Bryan Habana – have had the big day soured to a significant extent by ending it in Test defeat.

In the cases of the first-named two, the reverses came at the hands of the very All Blacks, so there’s a potential hat-trick of heartbreak in the offing at the “Cake Tin”, because Bok captain Jean de Villiers hits the landmark then as fifth recipient for the country.

At least it isn’t an all-embracing bogey as veteran lock Victor Matfield – likely to be in the starting mix on Saturday unless he is victim of any selection shake-up after the damaging late 24-23 loss to Australia in Perth – got through his 100th game in 2010 on the winning side against the Wallabies at Loftus.

Even that match wasn’t without its unwanted periods of angst, as the Aussies twice led by a 14-points margin before the Boks roared back for a 44-31 triumph.

The team’s brains trust appear to have largely taken a “cowboys don’t cry” approach in public relations terms to the controversial events in Perth, where the game was seemingly well in the bag for the visitors until the inexplicable yellow-carding of Habana at an advanced stage which threw the Bok defence fatally out of kilter for a final Wallaby surge that proved decisive.

It is not hard to surmise, though, that inwardly the Bok management and players will be absolutely smarting over George Clancy’s officiating – Duane Vermeulen was also wrongly penalised for a bone-crunching but fair tackle much earlier – and doubly angered by the effect it had on Habana’s supposedly celebratory fixture.

The seasoned left wing, who had also been among the better Bok performers before his banishment, may take some consolation from the wise words of his former World Cup-winning skipper Smit, who told this writer in a chat last year: “You take these things personally (when a landmark game goes the wrong way) ... at the time it is hard to stomach but then you play another Test, experience another victory, and that feeling pretty much goes away.”

The trouble is, that supposedly revitalising next game for Habana is a stinker on paper -- away against the globally top-ranked and now also Championship-leading All Blacks, who edged a step closer to retaining their monopoly over the four-nation tournament since its inception in 2012 by seeing off Argentina 28-9 with a four-try bonus point.

Perhaps the best chance of the pretty clear underdogs upsetting the New Zealanders is their being motivated not only to make De Villiers’s 100th appearance a happy one, but also by putting any anger around Clancy’s refereeing to genuinely constructive use mentally as they seek a first Bok win in the Land of the Long White Cloud since 2009.

Five years ago, South Africa prevailed 32-29 in a Hamilton thriller to win the competition formerly known as the Tri-Nations; the last time they have done so.

A bit of further comfort for the task ahead – lose and the Boks will almost certainly bid an early farewell to any title prospect for them this year – is that nine members of their current squad were involved on that occasion.

De Villiers, Habana, Matfield, Morne Steyn, Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira all started, whilst Jannie du Plessis and Ruan Pienaar were substitutes, so it is not as though too many Springbok players will be entering virgin territory psychologically next weekend.

But if the Boks are to rev themselves up for the tough battle by using flashpoints from Perth as a motivational tool, they have got to do it cleverly and without too much fanfare – something that already appears to be their objective.

The last thing they must do is fall into a “Justice 4 Bakkies” type of trap, where they played a victim card all too obviously and the campaign not only made them a temporary laughing stock of the rugby world but also bombed in battle.

That particular occasion was after No 4 hard man Botha had been suspended for a fortnight following a “clean-out” challenge on British and Irish Lions prop Adam Jones during the decisive second Test of 2009 at Loftus, which the Boks snatched late to also secure the three-match series.

For the dead-rubber last contest, a weakened Bok side (a morally debatable move in itself, at the time) wore armbands with the afore-mentioned slogan emblazoned on them – and were thumped 28-9 and incurred the disciplinary wrath of the IRB.

If the Boks of 2014 are feeling peeved right now, they must try to keep it under wraps all week and unleash it in all the right ways on their strongly-favoured foes on Saturday.

Coach Heyneke Meyer is scheduled to name his line-up on Wednesday and, given that the Boks all but got past the post against the Wallabies, wholesale, knee-jerk sort of changes seem ill-advised.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain worrisome issues to mull over: these include the inside centre top-heavy midfield combination of De Villiers and Jan Serfontein, the mediocrity at halfback of Ruan Pienaar and Steyn – though the latter was generally steady until his costly late-game failure to find a critical touch – and continued lethargy at loosehead prop of former dynamo in the berth Mtawarira.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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