Cape Town – Considering the similar climate of despondency,
comparisons with the team which lost by a still-record 53-3 to England at
Twickenham in 2002 are almost inevitable when the Springboks go into battle
against those foes at the same venue on Saturday.
Lead-up circumstances are almost identical: when the Boks of
14 years ago pitched up at the famous stadium, they had been beaten five times
in 10 matches during the calendar year to that point, and entered the game
fragile from successive end-of-year tour defeats already to France and Scotland.
Allister Coetzee’s class of 2016 are four from nine in Test
win terms, and with their last full international having been a debilitating
57-15 masterclass from New Zealand in Durban.
Frankly, it would be a surprise if the current Springboks,
who look just about as makeshift and “pot luck” in some respects as the team of
2002, feel any more bullish about their chances of upsetting the English than
the Corne Krige-led outfit did then.
They may try to bank some comfort from the fact that the
present England side is not yet as formidable or proven as Martin Johnson’s
steely, settled crew who butchered the 14-man Boks by seven tries to nil.
It was only a year later, after all, that England, fielding
many of the faces who had embarrassed the South Africans at “Twickers”, went on
to hoist the World Cup for the first time in their history at Sydney.
The 2016 group under the shrewd tutelage of Eddie Jones are
certainly a team on the rise, and buoyed by that 3-0 June clean sweep of the
Wallabies on their own turf, but do not yet boast quite the mass, cult-figure
status of the line-up featuring hard man Johnson as skipper, plus the likes of
Jason Robinson, Ben Cohen, Will Greenwood, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Jason
Leonard and Neil Back.
Nor is there terribly much reason to fear that the Boks may
receive a similar sort of hammering to 2002, when a good part of the reason for
the implosion was the distracting collective, foul play-laden “madness”
prevalent in many of the visitors’ minds.
Krige has subsequently, in his autobiography, candidly
admitted to his own culpability as supposed leader on that wretched winter
afternoon in London, after the Boks had gone a man down with lock Jannes
Labuschagne’s red card for a cynical late charge on golden boy Wilkinson: “I knew
we were going to lose … I made up my mind to take a few people down with me.
“I committed some appalling fouls, hitting people in
possession and smashing others off the ball.
“It was (and still is – Sport24) the worst beating a Bok
side has ever suffered; you can imagine how I felt as captain … hurt, pain,
anger, resentment, fury. When I sat down in the dressing room after the final
whistle I just cried my eyes out … I was mentally shattered.
“I am not a hit man, an assassin. I regret that day more than
any in my entire rugby career.”
Almost inevitably, there were considerable casualties in the
aftermath: five members of the starting line-up – Labuschagne, Friedrich
Lombard, Robbie Fleck, James Dalton and Wessel Roux – never played for the Boks
The Boks simply did not look an adhesive, classy unit then,
and much the same hallmark applies, regrettably, to the starting team named by
Coetzee on Thursday, even if there are enough individuals of suitable mettle to
potentially make life at least fairly challenging for England (it’s not quite a
fait accompli that the hosts will win, although they are widely branded clear
It is probably fair
to say that the tight five the Boks will field on Saturday is capable of
putting up sterner resistance than the rather threadbare one of the 2002 clash,
which was minus any figures – RWC 1995 participant Dalton was well past his
best by then -- of the gravitas of Eben
Etzebeth, just for example.
Both the 2002 and 2016 Bok starting teams are marked by certain
risky, largely out-of-position selections.
Coetzee is taking a major chance by stationing the well less
than whippet-like Willem Alberts on the open-side flank, even if the Boks as a
whole look agreeably more “muscled-up” than for recent Tests where they have
struggled in collisions.
The side Rudolf Straeuli chose for the ill-fated date 14
years ago dubiously had Butch James, far better acquainted with flyhalf, at
inside centre, and versatile AJ Venter at No 5 lock, even though blindside
flank or No 8 always tended to be his more suitable station.
It is history now that the general Bok battle-plan failed
dismally that day.
Here’s hoping for nothing remotely like a repeat …
Twickenham Bok XV of
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12
Damian de Allende, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Warren
Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Willem Alberts, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben
Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Twickenham Bok XV of
15 Werner Greeff, 14 Breyton Paulse, 13 Robbie Fleck, 12
Butch James, 11 Friedrich Lombard, 10 Andre Pretorius, 9 Bolla Conradie, 8 Joe
van Niekerk, 7 Pedrie Wannenburg, 6 Corne Krige (capt), 5 AJ Venter, 4 Jannes
Labuschagne, 3 Deon Carstens, 2 James Dalton, 1 Wessel Roux.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing