Johannesburg - There have been many occasions in the history of Springbok rugby that the national team have dug deep when faced with a backs to the wall scenario, but a morale boosting win has arguably never been more necessary than it is now.
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Eben Etzebeth’s men go in against France, a side they beat 3-0 in South Africa in June, off the back of a humiliating record 38-3 defeat to Ireland and need to win if they are going to save the tour from disaster before it has even gone beyond the halfway point. More than that though, this game is being played in Paris, and no South African should need to be reminded of why mention of that city suddenly jars a bit in this week when the World Cup 2023 venue announcement brought so much despair.
Everyone has their own view on what conspired against the South African bid, but what can’t be denied is that the integrity of the sport has to be questioned when due process and the recommendations that came after an exhaustive independent audit gives way to the politicking and lobbying that has long led to the perception that there is an old boys club running rugby.
Of course, one Bok game can’t be equated with the gravitas of losing out on hosting the World Cup. That wouldn’t be comparing apples with apples. However, one Bok win, particularly one that comes after the nightmare of Dublin, will at least go some way to lifting the pall of gloom that has descended on South African rugby over the past few days.
Or, to put it another way perhaps, it will hold off the crisis that will envelop the Boks should they lose. As it stands, the Boks have still lost only thrice this season, with two of those defeats coming against New Zealand. Another one this weekend though will make it four, and the Boks will be heading back towards the darkness of 2016 with two matches to play.
The Boks appeared to lose it completely towards the end of the corresponding tour last year and the disturbing thing about last week’s performance in Dublin was that the tourists appear to go back into the no-man’s land they inhabited 12 months ago when it came to game-plan and purpose.
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Pieter-Steph du Toit’s absence due to concussion notwithstanding (he was good before he left the field early against Ireland), the changes made to the team for Paris are the right ones. Duane Vermeulen’s strength and experience should be a welcome addition at No 8, Handre Pollard should probably have been selected in the starting team last week, and ditto for Wilco Louw.
Du Toit will be missed but Siya Kolisi’s switch to blindside flank to accommodate Francois Louw on the openside means there is balance to the back row as Kolisi is certainly no stranger to No 7 and is a good carrier. What is particularly exciting for the Boks though is that Vermeulen and Louw playing to the ball together worked for the South Africans during the Heyneke Meyer era.
Pollard should bring the directness that the Boks were missing with Elton Jantjies at No 10 and hopefully it will also bring greater success when it comes to attempts to get the ball across the gainline, something that just didn’t happen in Dublin. The little loops that have been enacted too far back from line don’t work and it has meant the Boks losing ground when caught in possession.
Perhaps though the most significant selection is one that many might consider the least significant. Francois Venter hasn’t been in the Bok starting team for nearly a year now (he played against Wales in Cardiff in the last match of 2016) but we’ve heard positive stories about his contribution off the field since then and he is a good leader.
As an experienced captain who has led the Cheetahs to a Currie Cup title and who has also led them well at other times, Venter could bring some stability to an onfield leadership group that is in desperate need of it.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the two big defeats the Boks have suffered this season has been the way that the leaders have gone missing when the pendulum has swung against the team. Leading from the front works when your team is on top or is at least on an even keel with the opposition, but you require more than that once you slip behind and are on the back foot.
There was a lot made of the need to develop leaders and there was a strong focus on that at the pre-season camp in Plettenberg Bay. The absence for most of the year of the appointed leader, Warren Whiteley, certainly hasn’t helped the Boks. In Paris the Bok leaders will be scrutinised for the composure and calmness they bring, or lack thereof, if the game gets tight or they fall behind again.
There has been a lot of focus on the Bok coaches during the fall-out this week and it is true that they must take responsibility, but so must the players. It is time for the leaders in the team to stand up and show what they made of.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have a long memory to recall when last that call was made and what the response was. The Boks didn’t beat the All Blacks in Cape Town, but the response to the big defeat in Albany before that was passionate and, from a South African viewpoint, compelling.
The French did show ominous signs of finding some momentum in their second half against the All Blacks, but if the South Africans are imbued with the same passion they showed at Newlands a month ago and marry it to a bit more composure and calmness, they will win. It’s as simple as that.
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